Mainpage: Mobbing in academe and beyond

K. Westhues



Woke vs Widdowson, 2022

Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo
Published online, June 2022

Frances Widdowson was appointed to the faculty of Mount Royal University in Calgary in 2008, shortly after completing her PhD in political science at York University in Toronto. By 2021, she was a tenured Associate Professor. By standard criteria, she is a high achiever. She and her husband, Albert Howard, jointly authored a trenchant, much discussed book on Canadian public policy with respect to indigenous peoples: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (McGill-Queens, 2008). If you don't have time to read that book, this conference presentation from 2016 gives you the flavour and logic of her perspective on First Nations in Canada: "The Political Economy of 'Truth and Reconciliation': Neotribal Rentierism and the Creation of the Victim/Perpetrator Dichotomy." Or here is an even shorter and more recent summary of her thinking: "The Problem With ‘Indigenizing the University'" (Quillette, 14 February 2021).

You don't have to read much of Widdowson's published work to realize that she is a scholar of substance, heavyweight as opposed to lightweight, with a far broader perspective than our particular time and place. She comes across as leftist, materialist and critical, but strongly opposed to the identity politics of today's postmodern left. Her Marxism is of the old-fashioned economic kind, not the newfangled cultural kind. She is not "progressive" in the current sense of the word, not woke or politically correct.

It's not surprising that many social justice warriors at MRU have long been hoping that Widdowson would disappear. She unashamedly refuses to show partiality or pay obeisance to the BIPOC coalition (blacks, indigenous, people of colour), the LGBTQ+ coalition, or other social categories currently treated as sacred cows. What is surprising is how overt and undisguised is the motivation of the campus mob that took shape toward getting rid of her. Research productivity, free expression, diversity of viewpoints, discussion and debate are sacred values in a university. Generally, an academic mob loses credibility and becomes a laughingstock if it targets an accomplished professor simply on grounds that it disagrees with the professor's scholarship. In Widdowson's case, by contrast, the mob has gone after her simply and explicitly because she holds ideas the mob finds unacceptable, and the MRU administration, which initially defended Widdowson's academic freedom, surrendered to the mob in December 2021, when it formally dismissed her from the faculty.

The most graphic evidence of the mob in this case is the petition at, "Fire Frances Widdowson, a racist professor at MRU," started in 2020 by an MRU student named Kenna Fraser. The petition begins with a link to an article in the Western Standard that summarizes some of Widdowson's views, then calls her racist and hateful, and then asks MRU President Tim Rahilly to fire her. Many of the (as of June 2022) six thousand signers of the petition provide comments. They boil down to, "I disagree with how this this woman thinks." It's as simple as that. Sacred academic values be damned!

As Justice Louis Brandeis said a century ago, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Widdowson has made extensive documentation on her case publicly available on her website about the woke academy. Further, on the FundRazr page soliciting donations for her legal case, one can read dozens of comments by academics and others supporting her. It's instructive to compare these comments to the comments denouncing her on the petition.

Following are the half-dozen best reports and commentaries on the Widdowson case that I have come across. After them, by way of conclusion, is the letter I sent to the top administrators at MRU when the news broke that Professor Widdowson had been fired.



Lindsay Shepherd

If anybody can understand the ordeal Widdowson has gone through at MRU, it is Lindsay Shepherd, the graduate student in communications who was the target of a similar mobbing at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2017-18. Shepherd fought back with courage, cleverness, and clear-headedness far beyond her years. The icing on the cake is that she wrote and published a fluent, factual, engaging, truly powerful account of her troubles: Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis (Magna Carta, 2021). Working now as a freelance journalist, Shepherd published one of the first and best accounts of Widdowson's dismissal from MRU:

"Professor who criticized indigenization agenda fired by university," True North (3 January 2022).



Peter Shawn Taylor

Taylor is currently editor-at-large for Maclean's and a freelancer for the Waterloo Region Record. He captures the essentials of the Widdowson ouster in this article for C2C Journal, written just a few weeks after she was formally dismissed.

"Academic Freedom vs. Wokeism: The Frances Widdowson Affair," 2 February 2022.



Jonathan Kay

I suspect it was a loss for engineering when Kay switched from it into journalism, but for sure it was a gain for public discourse in Canada. He contributes regularly to the National Post and is an editor of Quillette, where the following insights from and about Frances Widdowson were published this year:

"When disagreement becomes trauma," Quillette (8 May 2022)

"Quillette Podcast #186: Frances Widdowson on the Questions Canadians Aren’t Supposed to Ask About Unmarked Graves," Quillette (22 April 2022)




Bruce Gilley

Two of the most important defenders of classic academic values in North America are the National Association of Scholars (NAS) in the United States and its sister organization in Canada, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS). The NAS publishes an online magazine, Minding the Campus. There, almost immediately after Widdowson was dismissed, political scientist Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, head of the Oregon chapter of NAS, published this scathing report:

"Disrobing the Aboriginal Stalinists on a Canadian Campus," 29 December 2021.



James Pew

I don't know who James Pew is, beyond the fact that on 3 June 2022, he published on substack an eloquent explanation for why the Widdowson mobbing matters so much. He calls her not just a "brilliant scholar" but a "formidable foe." I think he is right.

"Why is situation Widdowson so compelling?"



Barbara Kay

For a great many years, this veteran columnist has been publicizing the travails of academic dissenters from the regnant, postmodern orthodoxy. She has often used the research literature on mobbing to help make sense of how such professors are dealt with. Her article below on Frances Widdowson is noteworthy for its having been published more than four years before this professor was axed. Some academic mobbings occur with frightening suddenness – that of Toronto's Jordan Peterson is a case in point. Others, like Widdowson's, proceed at a slow boil for many years before the lid at last blows off.

"A lone academic dares to challenge accepted narratives about Canada's residential school system," National Post (23 May 2017)/



Letter to the MRU President and Interim Provost

6 January 2022

Professor Tim Rahilly, President, Mount Royal University
Professor Elizabeth Evans, Interim Provost, Mount Royal University

Dear President Rahilly and Provost Evans,

Media across the country are reporting the news of your dismissal of Professor Frances Widdowson from MRU.

This news calls to mind the lesson Nathaniel Hawthorne drew in House of Seven Gables from the burning of a witch, that "the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.”

The news leaves me doubting that you belong in positions of academic leadership. I hope you will come to your senses very soon, before further damage is done not just to Professor Widdowson but to the mission of your university.

Respect and kind regards,

Kenneth Westhues
Professor Emeritus, Sociology & Legal Studies
University of Waterloo, Canada