Controversial academic Frances Widdowson showed up at the University of Lethbridge on Wednesday, following a week of pushback from students and faculty and despite officials saying earlier in the week that they would not provide her official space to speak.
Widdowson was invited to speak by a faculty member last week, spawning a large outcry. That prompted university officials to halt the speech, but Widdowson said she still planned to show up.
She did so late Wednesday afternoon, but was met in the university’s atrium by a large, mostly antagonistic crowd of hundreds of students and others who had gathered in anticipation of her appearance.
“She shouldn’t be here!” exclaimed one student to cheers, prior to Widdowson’s arrival.
“There’s no room for hate on this campus!” said another.
The former Mount Royal University (MRU) professor made headlines in 2020 when she said the Black Lives Matter movement had destroyed the university and that there had been an educational benefit to residential schools.
The crowd booed and shouted as Widdowson arrived. She was largely drowned out by the crowd but did engage with some attendees as she moved through the atrium.
She attempted to move to another building on campus but was also met with resistance, and eventually had to leave. In an interview, Widdowson said though the event was “unruly,” she never felt threatened.
“Unfortunately, it was an attempt, again, to use the heckler’s veto to stop the discussion from happening,” she said, suggesting that “identity politics” had taken over universities.
After leaving the university on Wednesday, she delivered a lecture via web conference, largely sticking to the same subject matter, focusing on “woke-ism” and her view of academic freedom.
University president says 700 people participated
In a statement, Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the university, wrote that 700 students, staff, faculty and community supporters had participated in the protest.
“Another large group attended a lecture on the importance of truth before reconciliation. Tonight’s events were a coming together of our community to show support for each other and a reflection of the values of the University of Lethbridge,” Mahon wrote.
“I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner.”
The appearance was due to take place the same day the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a statement criticizing the U of L decision, writing that it raised “serious concerns about the University of Lethbridge’s commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
“Dr. Widdowson certainly does raise disturbing and provocative questions. While many profoundly disagree with her, a university should welcome controversial speakers and vigorous debate, not seek to restrict discourse or speakers,” wrote CAUT executive director David Robinson.
Widdowson’s planned appearance to give a talk entitled “How ‘Woke-ism Threatens Academic Freedom” at the U of L was halted after days of pushback from faculty and students. Two petitions had received more than 2,500 signatures demanding the speech be cancelled. The university had previously said it planned to let the lecture proceed, citing its policy on free expression, though it noted it did not agree with Widdowson’s views.
“I think there’s an acceleration of woke-ism in universities, which is what, ironically, what my talk was going to be about,” Widdowson said in the interview, alleging that universities have moved away from working through points of disagreement intellectually, as opposed to emotionally.
Her controversial 2020 comments prompted more than 6,000 people to call for her firing via a petition. She was dismissed from the Calgary institution in late 2021. In early 2022, MRU said that while it was committed to fostering expression and free speech, it said academic freedom “does not justify harassment or discrimination.”
On Tuesday, Alberta’s advanced education minister said new steps to “strengthen free speech” on post-secondary campuses would be announced in the near future. The same day, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley called that position “troubling” given the high proportion of Indigenous students that attend the U of L.
Opinion divided on speech
Kristine Alexander, co-director of the Institute for Child and Youth Studies at the U of L, said she was dismayed when she learned that one of her colleagues — Paul Viminitz, who works in the philosophy department at the university — had invited Widdowson.
“Right away, I started hearing from students who believe, as I do, in the body of evidence-based inquiry, and to understand that we need to have truth before there can be reconciliation in Canada,” Alexander said.
“I would say that, basically, that the claims that she makes are based on, I would say — it’s generous to call it maybe a misreading of evidence, a selective misreading of evidence.”
With that in mind, Alexander invited Dr. Sean Carleton, a professor in the department of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, to provide an alternative lecture to the Widdowson event.
Student Elijah Crawford, who is studying history, said he was disappointed to hear Widdowson was due to appear on campus.
“I think from the student body it’s been a very good reaction so far in at least attempting to support Indigenous students at the school,” he said. “I think the university has been doing its best during this extremely distressing period in our history.”