The Backlash on Campus: Climate Report Opens Floodgates (the Chilly Climate Report and Sexual Discrimination at the University of Victoria's Political Science Dept)

Article excerpt

THE BACKLASH ON CAMPUS: CLIMATE REPORT OPENS FLOODGATES ....WHEN THE MOON WAS FULL AND THE RIVER CLAM, I SET OUT IN A SMALL CRAFT FOR HISLAND, THE ADVENTURES HEREINAFTER RECOUNTED BEING ABSOLUTELY TRUE.

On April 15, 1994 four political science professors at the University of Victoria filed a libel suit against the CBC following interviews with women about systemic discrimination at the university. The CBC broadcasts, alleged the professors were defamatory because "they conveyed to the public affirmation of the imputation ... that female students and faculty members were being discriminated against by the male members of the University of Victoria's Political Science department."

The suit against the CBC is one of the most recent events in an academic battle taking place at the University of Victoria and other campuses in Canada, in which women's equality is being pitted against academic freedom. Known more commonly as the debate on `political correctness' or the backlash against the women's movement, the battle at the University of Victoria erupted after a 19-page report on discrimination against women was presented to the Political Science department in the spring of 1993.

The professors allege that the CBC defamed them by broadcasting interviews with Somer Brodribb, chair of the committee that produced the report, and law professor Constance Backhouse, whose report on sexism at the University of Western Ontario in London was also negatively received by male faculty and administration when it was released in 1988.

Well-known feminist theorist Dr. Somber Brodribb, a professor in the Political Science department, was chosen to chair the committee in the spring of 1992. Originally called The Committee to Make the Department More Supportive to Women, the committee was given a mandate to address the `climate' of learning for women in the department, with special emphasis on systemic barriers encountered by women students. Five female students - Theresa Newhouse, Nadia Kyba, and Denise McCabe, and graduate students Sylvia Bardon and Phyllis Foden joined Brodribb on the committee.

Among the students' complaints were reports that feminist scholarship was often marginalized or excluded from courses altogether; that professors did not interrupt men who dominate seminar discussions, but blocked discussions between women, especially when the discussion focussed on feminism; that sexist humour was used as a classroom device; that male faculty members made sexual advances to female students at social gatherings; and that disparaging comments were made about feminists. For example, students heard professor referring to "feminist imperialists" and comments like "I'm not going to be evaluated by the feminist police."

The committee presented its preliminary report in March 1993. The chilly climate report, as it soon came to be known, was similar in its findings to those written by women on other Canadian campuses. Based on discussions with, and letters from, students in the department, the report recommended 34 changes to address systemic discrimination and create a more inclusive learning environment. (See sidebar article on this page.) The report included recommendations on teaching practices, the hiring and promotion of faculty, curricula issues and funding for women students.

One week after the committee submitted its report, all of the tenured faculty in the department, eight men, wrote a letter to the Chair of the committee demanding that she provide "credible evidence" for references to sexual harassment contained in the report or else they would require "an unqualified apology and retraction."

If neither the evidence (names of students and professors involved) nor an apology were forthcoming, the letter warned, "it will be necessary for us to take further steps to protect our reputations."

Much has been made of this letter and for good reason: it reframes a discussion of systemic discrimination in apolitical terms - as though, unrelated `incidents' happened - or perhaps didn't happen, to individuals who are all more or less equal in the power they wield in academia. …