by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Jay Schalin of the Martin Center probes a recent West Coast academic controversy.
Nowhere is “cancel culture” more deeply entrenched than in academia; it was commonplace there long before the actual phrase was coined to describe the current social media phenomenon. The gears of academia keep grinding away dissenting opinions, despite occasional paeans offered in the name of academic freedom. Those who propose uniquely original ideas can face all manner of retribution, from subtle digs from colleagues and administrators to the loss of employment.
One such situation is occurring at Portland State University in Oregon. The political science department has rewritten its by-laws to distance itself from professor Bruce Gilley. Among the changes is the creation of a process for making statements of condemnation against department members whose work offends a consensus of the department.
Gilley, who is tenured, is no stranger to controversial research. In 2017, he published an article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” in which he suggested that European colonies in the Third World were both beneficial and legitimate, as they generally increased the local standard of living and were often supported by a significant portion of the local population.
Obviously, such a hypothesis goes against the academic zeitgeist; it was considered deeply offensive and decried throughout academia and elsewhere. The editor of the journal that published it, Third World Quarterly, even resigned his position out of fear for his physical safety.
However, Gilley was neither cowed nor chastened by the criticism and threats directed at him. He has continued to write articles questioning the accepted orthodoxy in his field—and has added activities such as defending free expression on campus, calling for the reform of university governance, and speaking out on matters of public policy. …
… [A]cademic freedom is afforded to scholars because their work meets standards of rationality and method. Or, in some cases, it may be denied because their claims are unnecessarily venal.
Gilley’s scholarship and policy critiques meet all of these criteria. His work on colonialism is empirical, rational, and serious; it presents a point of view that many have pondered without conducting the research to back it.