Tuesday, August 23, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Phew! The UN has recognized 3 days of remembrance and tribute over the past 3 days, for the Victims of Terrorism (Sunday), Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief (Monday), and Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (today). Pretty heavy stuff. On a lighter note, today you could celebrate Ride the Wind Day, Rudolph Valentino, Cuban Sandwiches or Sponge Cake.
This morning, I’m delighted to be presenting (virtually) to faculty and staff at St Thomas More College, at uSask. The season of back-to-campus retreats, town halls and BBQs has begun! (And I’m always happy to share an overview of PSE trends on your campus, to set the scene and spark new ideas…)
Since the COVID19 pandemic, little has shaken the landscape of American higher ed like the US Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion rights back in June. I’ve been scanning hundreds of articles and preparing this week’s summary ever since – and I realize it’s never going to be complete. Today is part 1 of 3. (I thought better of it than to start off your Monday morning with it!)
Reader Advisory: The social, legal and medical upheaval in the wake of the Dobbs verdict is tough to watch, even from the safe distance of Canada – and for those who have survived traumatic experiences, sexual assault, or struggled with pregnancy, the topic is both painful and triggering. I apologize in advance if I can only see through my own eyes, and while I’m trying to be sensitive in this reporting, I would urge those already overwhelmed by the subject to skip the next couple of blogs.
A quick primer, in case you’ve been at the beach with your head buried in the sand all summer…
50 Years Back in Time
One of this year’s bigger social tremors south of the border was the ruling of the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization (hereafter simply “Dobbs”). On June 24, the court ruled to uphold a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks, and to overturn Roe v Wade and 50 years of federal reproductive rights. In the majority opinion, justice Samuel Alito wrote that “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion,” and returned the authority to regulate abortion to individual states. Strategically (cynically?) the decision was officially announced on the Friday before the July 4th holiday weekend. Immediately, abortion was criminalized in a dozen states with “trigger laws,” and almost half of American states are expected to impose severe limits, if not outright bans, on the procedure. Just 19 jurisdictions had legislation protecting reproductive rights, largely on the east and west coasts.
Whether stepping 50 years into the past is a good thing or a bad one is up for debate, apparently. Supporters of the Dobbs decision, like one Michigan community college prof, say it was high time the court outlawed satanic “child sacrifice.” On the other hand, critics say this is a “post-legal,” “maximalist” SCOTUS that has overstepped its authority, and contradicted the will of 85% of Americans, who support legal abortion in some or any circumstances. (Canadians are also divided on abortion, roughly 60/40 – although the balance swings from 63% pro-choice in Alberta, to just 42% in Atlantic Canada. There is also a surprising generational divide: 63% of Canadians 55+ believe in abortion on demand, while just 50% of adults 18-34 agree.) The opposing viewpoints are tough to reconcile. Surveys by YouGov find that 90% of Americans who consider themselves pro-choice believe that “forcing someone into an unwanted pregnancy infringes on their bodily autonomy,” while about as many of those who are pro-life believe “abortion is the same as murdering a child.”
Whatever your moral position on the subject, the aftershocks are opening cracks in US society and causing new pressures and problems for American colleges – with repercussions for campuses across North America.
Whenever US higher ed gets embroiled in controversy, the Canadian public and politicians take note – and of course, fluctuations in the fortunes of US colleges affect CdnPSE recruitment of foreign and domestic students and faculty…
“Summer of Rage”
Naturally, there were vocal protests and demonstrations against the Dobbs ruling across the US, starting in early May when the decision was first leaked. Thousands marched under bright green “Bans Off Our Bodies” banners from LA to NY, and organizers predicted a “summer of rage.” About 20,000 people gathered at the National Mall in Washington DC, outside the SCOTUS. (Well, outside the 8-foot anti-riot fence erected after the ruling first leaked.) Here in Canada, abortion rights advocates rallied in Kelowna, Calgary, Kitchener, and doubtless many other cities. (Those ones happened to hit my radar because they quoted CdnPSE faculty, students or recent grads.) Some protesters and commentators pointed out that rural Canadians have limited access to abortion too, while others emphasized that “it’s also very important for politicians to know this is not happening here.” Protests are still happening now, months later: a dedicated US website, WeWontGoBack, maps upcoming abortion protests in real time. (Then again, Newsweek questioned why the Dobbs protests weren’t more widespread, like the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020.)
“For the women of this country, this will be a summer of rage. We will be ungovernable until this government starts working for us, until the attacks on our bodies let up, until the right to an abortion is codified into law.” – Rachel Carmona, president, Women’s March
“It’s important to show solidarity with people who have uteruses stateside.” – Adora Nwofor, organizer, Calgary rally
Fury on Campus
Across America, high school students staged walkouts to protest Dobbs, but PSE students are even more directly affected, since 18-24-year-olds account for >40% of all abortions. Students in medicine and law programs have reacted with the most outrage: uMichigan medical students walked out on a pro-life speaker, while George Washington U students lobbied for a pro-life law prof to be fired (see below). Yale Law students responded “with fury” to “the Christo-fascist political takeover,” calling out their conservative classmates in the school’s “Federalist Society.” At American U (in Washington DC), 8 law students exchanged chat messages critical of the Dobbs ruling – and 3 weeks later were being formally investigated for violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy. (A conservative Christian student had participated defensively in the chat, and filed the complaint.) The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) protested this “absolute abomination” and worried such investigations could stifle free speech for students. (By mid-July, at least one of the students had been cleared by the AU investigation.) Naturally, it’s not just students: some academics are announcing boycotts of conferences held in “abortion-hostile” states. The American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians submitted a brief to SCOTUS that they say was largely ignored, contradicting the “historical” claims in the ruling. And the Purdue U mascot, the Boilermaker Special VII, joined abortion rights protesters in Indiana. As students return to campuses this Fall, expect reproductive rights issues to be raised – forcefully.
“Being a teenager is hard enough, but in the current political climate, it’s a nightmare!” – Angela Cooper, communications director, Kentucky ACLU
“You say you’re pro-life. What about my life? Does my life not matter to you?” – 12-year-old Addison Gardner, speaking to West Virginia legislature
Political Hot Water
Most US campus presidents – particularly those from HBCUs and community colleges – spoke out immediately against the leaked Dobbs decision. (This was perhaps less brave for leaders of California campuses, in a staunchly pro-choice state, than for presidents in Michigan and other republican-led states.) The Association of American Medical Colleges naturally spoke out against the move, “rescinding the protection of the right to safe and effective abortions” and putting patients at risk. Unsure of their legal standing, and conscious of polarized opinions among their stakeholders, the vast majority of college leaders tried to strike a balanced tone. A few presidents at religious colleges, on the other hand, fully approved of Dobbs. Jerry Prevo, of Liberty U (VA), was perhaps most enthusiastic: “I am proud that we are now officially training the first Post Roe-v-Wade generation… to advocate for the life of mothers and their unborn babies.” Dave Pivonka, of Franciscan U of Steubenville (OH), said “I am delighted the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, a ruling that has wounded the soul of our country.” (FUS has been home to the “tomb of the unborn child” since 1987.) John Garvey, of Catholic U of America, celebrated the end of “the unholy idea that there is a constitutional right to kill unborn children.”
“I am gravely concerned that today’s US Supreme Court decision removes [the right of Americans to make private, informed choices about their health care and their futures] and will endanger lives across the country.” – Michael Drake, president, uCalifornia
“In this moment, regardless of what our personal viewpoints may be, let us treat one another with compassion as we face this new reality together.” – Peter Salovey, president, Yale U
Remaining neutral on such a polarizing and contentious issue will not be easy for institutional leaders. Students have been protesting on campus in anti-abortion states, from Texas to Missouri, pressing their administrations to speak out in favour of reproductive rights, protect the privacy of staff and students, and fund access to out-of-state abortion care. In Canada, student journalists have written throughout the summer about abortion rights and Dobbs, in op-eds at uVictoria, Concordia, and uToronto. Most have worried about the potential for legislative change here in Canada.
Speakers & Faculty
Few institutions were more directly embroiled in controversy over Dobbs than George Washington U, where SCOTUS justice Clarence Thomas taught constitutional law as an adjunct prof. (Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in the Dobbs ruling that was even more alarming to critics, and his wife has been implicated in the Jan 6 coup attempt.) In late June, GWU responded to protests – and a petition with 11,300 signatures – by affirming their commitment to academic freedom. (A month later, though, Thomas became “unavailable” to co-teach his seminar.) CdnPSE is no stranger to abortion controversy either: way back in 2005, Western U (then UWO) faced a PR firestorm over a Senate committee’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to Henry Morgentaler. More than $2M in bequests were withdrawn and the UWO board chair was publicly critical of the decision, but then-president Paul Davenport maintained the importance of academic freedom and tolerance, too. What a difference 2 decades make: in late July, dozens of uMichigan medical students walked out of their own “white coat day” ceremony to protest a speech by Kristin Collier, an openly anti-abortion member of the faculty there. Their petition, signed by 340+ students, argues that “an anti-choice speaker… undermines the University’s position on abortion and supports the non-universal, theology-rooted platform to restrict abortion access, an essential part of medical care.”
“We deeply agree with the University’s opinion that it is not their role to shield students from ideas they might disagree with.”- GW College Republicans, George Washington U
OK, there was at least one campus facing an even brighter glare of publicity than GWU…
Ob/Gyn at Indiana U
In mid-July, truly horrific news broke that a 10-year-old rape victim had travelled from Ohio to Indiana to obtain an abortion. The doctor who performed the procedure was Caitlin Bernard, also an assistant prof of obstetrics and gynecology at the Indiana U School of Medicine. Initially, there was some debate over the veracity of the story, and over whether Bernard had fulfilled her legal reporting obligations – as a result, the story made national headlines, and she experienced “intense harassment” and death threats. IU faculty expected their administration to speak up in support of Bernard, even though the state’s Republican lawmakers were clearly in favour of criminalizing abortion – but instead, their support was “late, lackluster, and nonspecific.” The IU faculty association has officially condemned the administration’s silence as “disappointing and indeed shameful.” Chronicle of Higher Ed
Obviously, SCOTUS decisions have no legal standing north of the 49th parallel – but Dobbs is inspiring and terrifying many Canadians nonetheless…
Pro-Choice Wake-Up Call
Dobbs is “a warning to the Canadian pro-choice movement,” says an op-ed in uToronto’s Varsity. “What will happen, and what is already happening, is a massive impact on stigma and access,” explains one Planned Parenthood director. Dobbs will have spillover effects in other countries, explains uGuelph politics prof Candace Johnson, and will “likely embolden anti-choice politicians and activists” here. US pro-life groups may even turn their attention, and shift their funds, to support efforts elsewhere.
“No country in the world, including Canada, is immune to what’s going on in the United States.” – Mélanie Joly, Canadian Foreign Minister
No Upside in Legislation
Since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a federal law in 1988, abortion has been decriminalized here – and no explicit legislation has been introduced to replace it, or protect reproductive choice. Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms arguably provides “procedural guarantees, not substantive rights.” Still, abortion is unlikely to be recriminalized in Canada, argue 3 Concordia U politics profs, since criminal justice remains a federal matter, and none of the federal parties appear interested in reopening the matter. (Although many observe that the Conservative front-runner, Pierre Poilièvre, has long been an “anti-choice” advocate.) The Senate blocked a previous attempt under Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. The SCC has broadly applied the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the notwithstanding clause “serves as a check on judicial over-reach.” Most pro-choice advocates believe “there’s absolutely no upside and a whole bunch of downside” to attempting to enshrine abortion rights in explicit legislation here in Canada.
Ottawa Student Societies
On CdnPSE campuses, student associations are doubtless discussing Dobbs and considering official responses. (I haven’t noticed many yet, but that could be because of gaps in my news-gathering system – or the fact that it’s still summer.) In late June, the uOttawa Students’ Union reiterated that it is “a pro-choice organization that stands for its students’ rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive justice.” About the same time, a committee of the Carleton U Students Association debated declaring CUSA a pro-choice organization, but ultimately settled on a “pro-reproductive rights and justice” organization. (CUSA has maintained a “relatively neutral” position on abortion since 2012.)
Here in Canada, abortion remains a polarizing topic that most of us regard as a non-issue, decided decades ago. But the “Summer of Rage” south of the border promises to heighten rhetoric on both sides, here in Canada as well, and may well inflame new challenges in both internal and external relations for CdnPSE.
Dobbs will also impact student recruitment and retention initiatives, student health services and student success at campuses across the US – which will have some indirect impacts on CdnPSE too. More about that tomorrow!
For public CdnPSE, it can be hard to imagine the campus culture at private religious institutions in the US. No matter what you think about Liberty U’s politics, you have to admit these are some very slick testimonial vids, released last month…
Grads with Star Power
Liberty U (VA) released several slick testimonial vids by recent grads in July 2022, but this fast-paced one featuring ESPN football host Samantha Ponder (née Steele, but no relation) somehow manages to include adolescent reminiscences of a campus visit, images of smiling students on campus, TV news clips, action shots from football games, astonishing ski jumps, fireworks and a rock concert! Sam credits LU with giving her all the experience she needed to launch her broadcasting career. When she landed her first job at Fox College Sports, Sam finished her education at Liberty Online. “This is a place where they care about the whole person.” Others in the series include Talitha Armbrust (a Film Scoring grad with a hearing impairment, who describes her experience with interpreters and ASL), and Korie Robertson (best-selling author, star of TV’s Duck Dynasty, and also a “Liberty Mom”). Sam Ponder | Talitha Armbrust | Korie Robertson
As always, thanks for reading!
I’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow – although personally, I’ll be winging my way across the country to Edmonton…
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