July 16th, 2024

Controversial professor talks woke-ism in library debate

By Steffanie Costigan - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on September 21, 2023.

Herald photo by Steffanie Costigan Controversial professor Frances Widdowson speaks during an event last weekend at the library downtown.

A debate in the main branch of the public library last Saturday afternoon featured controversial professor Frances Widdowson openly debating woke-ism as a threat to academic freedom in response to the University of Lethbridge refusing to provide space for a lecture by her in February.

The debate was sponsored by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and by Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS).

Widdowson said the debate was an acceptable topic for students to learn about and should be discussed in universities.

“The idea here is to show that this event is a perfectly acceptable sort of survey of ideas about this topic, which is very important in universities. And it’s ironic that we have to go outside of the university to be able to do this to show the University of Lethbridge that this is the kind of topic that we should be discussing in universities today,” said Widdowson.

The University of Lethbridge in a statement said it couldn’t comment on the debate due to an ongoing legal matter.

“As this matter is before the courts, the University of Lethbridge has no comment at this time,” said the university.

A court action has been filed against the university, challenging a decision to cancel an event in which Frances Widdowson was invited to speak earlier this year.

The court action seeks a declaration that the University of Lethbridge breached the applicants’ freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly guaranteed under the Charter, as well as an injunction requiring the university to permit the event to proceed on campus. 

Widdowson had been invited to hold a lecture Feb. 1 on wokeism by a professor at the U of L but then U of L president Mike Mahon announced the school wouldn’t be accommodating space for her talk.

Widdowson was fired by Mount Royal University in December of 2021.

Saturday’s debate had a few speakers. One acting as moderator was Richard Mueller, a University of Lethbridge economics professor, who remained neutral for the debate. While voicing his neutral stance on the topic, he did bring up concerns.

“Some of the things that I’ve seen on campus do concern me, I’m not sure exactly which way I lean. And I really don’t lean in either direction in this debate, I suppose.

“But what I do stand by is the ability of people to speak on campus. And sometimes their views are not very popular. Sometimes they might even be wrong. But this shouldn’t matter. We have academic freedom,” said Mueller.

University of Lethbridge professor of philosophy Paul Viminitz, Johan Pickle – a current U of L student – who are both involved in the ongoing lawsuit along with Widdowson, also spoke at the debate.

Viminitz voiced several points, one of them being the challenges being faced at universities because of cancel culture.

“Cancel culture, of course, arises directly out of this idea of protecting not you, because you’re grownups, apparently, but Jonah is not because Jonah is the student, so he has to be protected by the cancel culture… but some people think this is for indoctrination,” stated Viminitz to the audience at the debate.

The final speaker for the debate was Pickle, who noted contradictions in the university’s promises to students regarding encouraging and protecting free expression and civil debate in dissent.

“I don’t know how the school expects students to improve with these things when they’ve refused to let us be presented with any other ideas than the standard accepted beliefs. And then the administration as well, they’ve been encouraged and applaud the students for shouting dissenting voices on campus,” said Pickle.

While the debate went on, Indigenous members of the community burned sage outside of the library.

Widdowson said the university should be embarrassed for the protest which took place there earlier this year.

“What happened at the University of Lethbridge was an absolute embarrassment for universities.”

She said former president Mahon “should be hanging his head in shame for how he acted that day at the University of Lethbridge, which caused everything that we saw that unfolded that day.”

Widdowson said she invited about 10 professors from the U of L to debate her civilly on the influence woke-ism poses to academic freedom; however, none of them accepted the invitation She said she hopes to hold events around Alberta to create more understanding.

“We’re hoping to have a number of events across Alberta because it’s not just the University of Lethbridge that is the problem. It’s basically all universities in Alberta. If we could do an event in every city of Alberta that has a university or a college, that will be very helpful to enabling the public to understand some of the serious problems that we’re facing at universities.”

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‘Woke-ism’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ are pretty ill-defined terms, Steffanie. The article would have been enhanced by some idea of what Widdowson’s views are.


And I can appreciate some U of L faculty choosing to protect ‘free speech’ – similar to Heidegger’s efforts, in this case.