By Emma Sabzalieva and Grace Karram Stephenson

From academics and students prevented from returning to their place of work and study, to the status of expertise in society disparaged by senior politicians and to attacks on university campuses, higher education institutions around the world are increasingly enmeshed in politics – to an extent not seen since the 1960s.

Universities have always been political actors on a domestic stage, but are now faced with the choice of whether to take a stand and respond to today’s unsettling global politics. We argue that what is happening around the world – and particularly in the USA – is causing a major shift in how Canadian universities respond to politics.

Canada in the world

Canada may look isolated but it is deeply embedded in global events. Some view Canada’s universities and colleges as sheltered from the worst excesses of political intervention in higher education that we are witnessing around the globe. This supposed protection is due to the country’s location and a benign administration led by a one-time teacher who believes in the value of lifelong learning and equality of opportunity.

Yet in reality, the one border that Canada does share happens to be with a country apparently now hell-bent on putting itself first. Canada’s economy is intricately linked with the US and dependent on an amicable political relationship. Canadians grow up watching American news on TV and absorbing American popular culture as if it were their own. The extreme policies of the new Trump administration have only exacerbated the centuries-old identity crisis Canada faces having the US on its doorstep.

Add to this the heady mix of Canadians’ diverse background and fast-moving technologies, and the picture is clear: Canada is deeply connected to the rest of the world.

Universities as political actors

While public higher education institutions around the world have often been sites of political activism, in Canada this has not always been the case. As US campuses erupted in the 1960s with anti-government sentiments, John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic (1965) gave a scathing critique of Canadian academics, painting professors as apolitical and mundane.

The largely amicable relationship between higher education and the state in Canada may have much to do with this. The state generally provides most of the funding for higher education and has a say in what it thinks higher education is and should be doing through policy levers like legislation and reports. In turn, academics often contribute to state policy, sitting on committees and conducting research in an official capacity to inform the government.

This does not preclude political action, and we would argue that Porter’s vision of the sleepy Canadian university campus was blown out of the water by the 1980s. Faculty members embraced unionization – strikes in Manitoba were reported on this blog as recently as late 2016. Students have been active too, not just in union matters but in student-led movements, such as protesting fee increases in Québec’s Maple Spring.

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More recently, we have seen political action being taken not at the level of protecting or securing individual rights but at institution-wide level. Witness, for example, how Canadian institutions are enacting the recommendations of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see this and this), and how they are offering their spaces to bring people together to stand in solidarity against Islamophobia.

An era of global higher education politics

Canada’s universities are also responding to shifting international political scenarios, often deliberately putting themselves into opposition with world events. Very recently and most prominently, there has been much action in response to the new Trump administration in the US. This has come from all levels of higher education: from individual academics offering lab space and support to fellow scientists, debate within the higher education community around whether or not to boycott academic conferences in the US, to statements from institutions and higher education interest groups opposing the so-called ‘Muslim ban’.

We are therefore witnessing a shift in Canadian universities from politics based on individual and domestic needs to political action at institutional level geared towards global events. The inextricable linkages between Canada and the USA suggest that the actions of the Trump administration have triggered this shift. However, as we have shown, Canadian universities have always been political – even if, as Porter suggested, this might not be readily apparent on the surface. Now more than ever, the time is right for our higher education institutions to really get political.

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