What’s the purpose of universities?

There appears to be no simple answer to what might seem to be a straightforward question. The pragmatic, contemporary purpose would be to prepare young people for careers of various types. Certainly that would be the likely first response of most current students, and postgraduate employment has become a key (and very public) metric of university success.

But many would remind us that universities have a greater purpose, both in the lives of young people who attend and within our society. William von Humboldt was a German philosopher and diplomat who, in 1810, defined the purpose of universities rather succinctly as “communities of scholars and students engaged in a common search for truth”. The 1963 Robbins Report commissioned by the British government to examine education concluded that universities had four objectives: “instruction in skills, promotion of the general powers of the mind, advancement of learning, and transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.”

These greater goals require universities to provide environments where both students and faculty feel free to explore any and all topics openly, freely and safely.

Lindsay Shepherd’s recent experience with her university hierarchy would suggest we have some work to do if those lofty goals are to be achieved.

For those not yet familiar with her story, she is a 22 year old teaching assistant at an Ontario university who is undertaking a master’s degree in Communications. A few weeks ago, a student (or students, we don’t know) in her class complained that she was using material they found offensive. The offensive material consisted of a three minute video clip that had been broadcast on TVO and featured a debate about the use of non-gender, contrived pronouns, featuring Professor Jordan Peterson, a highly controversial psychologist and university professor who characterizes himself as a defender of free speech but whose views on social issues have been seen as “far right” and highly threatening by many.

For this offense, Ms. Shepherd was required to attend a meeting with her supervisor, another professor, and a university official who holds a position as director of gender violence prevention and support.

She recorded the meeting, and made that recording publicly available. Although it’s somewhat painful to listen to, it holds important lessons for those holding positions of authority in universities or colleges.

Through the 40+ minute session, the three senior university officials take turns trying to convince this young woman of the error of her ways. It’s clear that the intention of the meeting was not to get Ms. Shepherd’s perspective on the events, but to convince her that she was guilty of using an inappropriate teaching approach and disseminating offensive material. It appears that guilt had already been established through nothing more than the evidence of the student complaint. Why else would the director of gender violence prevention and support be already involved in the matter?

In their defense, they appeared to be sincere in their beliefs that the material was intrinsically offensive and in questioning of the choice of methodology given the purpose of the teaching session. They also appeared to be trying to avoid any reputational damage to their institution.

For her part, Ms. Shepherd was unrepentant and consistent in defending the use of provocative material to stimulate what she believed to be healthy debate. She felt young people should be prepared to hear and engage differing and even radical opinions. She made it clear that she herself did not agree with the views of Professor Petersen and was in no way endorsing his point of view. She was, throughout what was obviously a highly uncomfortable and fundamentally unfair encounter, principled and courageous. As I listed to the encounter, I couldn’t help but think that her parents would be proud of her.


There has been, as you might imagine, considerable backlash. Editorials, student protests and national columnists have defended Ms. Shepherd and attacked the university for how this issue was handled. The individuals involved and university president promptly issued apologies.







I decided to write on this issue not because Ms. Shepherd requires further defending, nor to add to the vilification of those involved – the fundamental unfairness of the encounter itself requires no further comment. However, I think this regrettable incident offers important lessons for those of us who teach and hold positions of authority at the university level.

If universities are to truly provide more than simple vocational training, they must establish safe and welcoming environments for students and faculty of all background and beliefs. They must foster, indeed welcome, new and even radical ideas. To do so, they must strike a delicate balance between free speech and personal harassment. When does one person’s expressed opinion become unacceptable? A standard we might all accept is when the expression of those views harms or threatens another individual or group. In most cases this is self-evident. But (and this is a big “but”), harm or threat can be a subjective experience. Were the students who complained to university official about Ms. Shepherd’s tutorial harmed or threatened by hearing the video clip she presented to them?

Universities appear to be struggling with this dilemma. The University of British Columbia recently rescinded a proposed Freedom of Speech statement that attempted to put limits on what would be considered permissible dialogue:


On perhaps another extreme, the University of Chicago appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression in 2014.


In their “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” they make the following statements:

“the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make judgments for themselves…”

They do, however, set limits with respect to harm or threat:

“The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests…”

The University of Chicago approach would seem to be appropriate given American values and their current political-social environment. But how are we to negotiate the delicate balance of free expression and personal rights in the Canadian context, given our collective recognition of minority oppression, and natural inclination to civility and compromise? In the university environment, there are additional motivations to protect young people who we may see as vulnerable, and to guard our institutional interests.

There are no easy answers, but I believe Ms. Shepherd’s experience provides warning that the pendulum may have swung too far toward toward suppression of vigorous and healthy debate in the interest of avoiding any potential appearance of offense. In our universities, where open and free discourse should be encouraged as a key goal, this is particularly alarming. Ultimately, we must re-examine what serves the interests of our students and society, and what keeps our universities vital institutions where personal growth and von Humboldt’s “common search for truth” can truly flourish.


Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Associate Dean,
Undergraduate Medical Education