Wednesday, January 14, 2009

You Know You're In Trouble When...

You're a left-wing prof whose students are sick of you

Even if the conclusions he sometimes draws are extremely dubious, one can very well assume that Michael Byers' position at the University of British Columbia is fairly safe.

But even if he wasn't worn out his welcome with the faculty or administration at UBC, apparently Byers has worn out his welcome with the editorial staff of the University newspaper, the Ubyessy:
"Last week, UBC political science professor, failed NDP Candidate, and media gadfly Michael Byers went on a hunger strike as part of the 2010 Homelessness Hunger Strike Relay. When we heard the news, virtually every member of The Ubyssey editorial staff winced. And not just because it was a self-serving media stunt that reeked of martyrdom and did little to serve the actual cause of homelessness. Since he arrived on campus in 2004, we’ve seen, heard, and written more about Byers than is merited given his accomplishments—how­ever impressive they might be. He’s written many a book, comes off as incredibly thoughtful in interviews, and people who take his classes generally have nice things to say. That’s the case with a lot of academics though—and we don’t see many thrusting themselves into the public spotlight with the gusto Byers does.

But Byers isn’t an academic at this point; he’s a politician. He ran for the NDP last election, he plans to run again for them in the next election and he’s ready to criticize the Harper government about anything at the drop of a dime. Except he—and reporters who use him for his good quotes and pretty face—still refer to him as an “in­ternational law expert,” even when he’s talking about the Olympics, the economic crisis, or any other subject that has nothing to do with international law. An academic imparts his learned knowledge on an issue, and a politicians promotes himself and his particular views. With Byers, the line is certainly blurred. At this point, whenever he publicly promotes a cause, it’s difficult to tell: is he promoting an important issue, or is he promoting Michael Byers and the NDP?
We know that even though his actual job is a UBC professor, UBC students aren’t exactly his first priority. After all, this past semester plenty of graduate students signed up for his class on global politics, but when they got to their first class, he told them that due to the upcoming election the class would be cancelled. He then proceeded to tell them why he was running, why students should vote for him, and, by the way, if anyone wanted to volunteer for him, that would be super awesome. Not exactly a humble display from the socially conscious professor.

All of which has led us to conclude the following: we’re tired of Byers; tired of talking about him, tired of hearing about him, and tired of his pseudo-self promotion. Michael Byers, we’re taking a cue from Stephen Colbert: you’re on notice.

One would have to think that this isn't exactly the kind of treatment Byers would want from the Ubyessy.

But it's interesting to note the distinction the newspaper has made in this particular case: Byers is no longer an academic, according to the Ubyessy editors. He's now a politician.

Certainly, Byers is not alone in this regard. University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan has taken leaves of absence to work as a strategist for the Conservative party -- including during the 2008 federal election alluded to in this editorial. Flanagan, like Byers, hasn't been shy about his political views either.

The Ubyessy editorial raises an interesting question: should seeking a political career preclude an individual from continuing to work as an academic?

Some may be tempted to say "yes" to this question. But those who would do so need to consider the obvious implications of such an answer. Many academics take leaves of absence from their universities or think tanks in order to run in elections. If they were to be precluded from doing so the ranks of potential political candidates would shrink dramatically.

It would also deprive our political system of vast quantities of expertise on a variety of topics, including Byers' purported area of expertise, international law.

Certainly, this doesn't make Byers any less insufferable. Nor does it make Tom Flanagan any less insufferable to those who disagree with him.

But the Ubyessy editors would be very amiss if they were to suggest that academics should be denied the opportunity to run for politican office, even if it means they might become -- gasp! -- politicians.

Fortunately, they don't really try to argue that particular point.

Other bloggers writing on this topic:

The Canada-Afghanistan Blog - "Check and Mate"


  1. That editorial made me laugh so hard!

    But the more serious point you bring up is:should seeking a political career preclude an individual from continuing to work as an academic?

    I honestly don't think it should make a difference if they run for office or not. I mean I'm very politically biased and I'm sure that if I taught a class somewhere I'd still be biased and unconsciously pass that on to my students.

    I think the difference with dudes like Byers is that they've become media whores and use their classrooms for campaign speeches and that's just wrong.

  2. Hey, there's no question that's a factor.

    But every instructor has their own biases that shine through in their class. Some biases are more obvious than others -- for example, I just finished a sociology of globalization course in which the text book basically insisted capitalism is evil, and to blame for every single problem on the planet.

    Yet in some cases this theorem was indefensible. For example, the author insisted that every religious movement to arise over the past 200 years was as a reaction to capitalism.

    Yet he forgot Scientology which was based on a science fiction novel and atheism, which was a direct response to religion itself.

    I don't think academics should have to choose between academia and politics, but they have a responsibility to try and minimize the amount they allow their individual biases to influence their work.

  3. Excellent analyses from the both of you, and I fully agree with your points.

    On the question of whether academics should be able to keep their jobs while serving as politicians, I wonder whether it should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Many academics, even if they don't run for office, can and do still get involved in political debates when they write news articles or policy papers.

    The U of A's own Gordon Laxer is a good example, a guy who regularly publishes policy papers with the Parkland Institute and in the newspapers, and was involved in a couple of policy presentations to Members of Parliament, including one notable incident where the Conservatives refused to listen to him and walked out on his presentation, and even apparently tried to violate procedure by cutting him off:



    and here:


    Similarly, in my own student days I regularly shot the breeze with my professors one-on-one in political topics, and many of them were happy to give me their opinions, although in this case I was directly asking them for it, rather than their simply using the classroom as a mouthpiece for their own personal beliefs.

    The problem in Byers' case doesn't seem to be so much that he's running for office, it's that he seems to be focusing more on building his public profile as a political candidate than attending to his duties to his students.

    St├ęphane Dion and Pierre Trudeau no doubt avoided this problem by quitting their university jobs to become full-time politicians, so at least you know their statements and actions were at least in part meant to get them elected. On the other side of the coin, one of my profs admitted he couldn't make it in politics, when I told him of my own political aspirations.

    That's the difference here-the Laxers aren't actually running for office, so at least you know they're analyzing the issues even if they do so from their own particular point of view, the way Tom Flanagan has been doing with his various media interviews and the articles he's published in newspapers like the Globe and Mail. The only difference between them is that the former come from a left-wing/center-left point of view while the latter from a right-wing perspective.

  4. On a completely unrelated topic, I decided to look at Byers' profile on's got decidedly mixed reviews, with students either loving or hating him...results which ironically extend to both Gordon Laxer and Tom Flanagan.

    But Patrick's opening tagline for this subject reminded me how I looked up Ward Churchill's profile on the website, just to see if he was really the borderline messiah the far-left Propaghandi nuts revere him as.

    While he did get some positive ratings, most of the comments were along the lines of "I am a liberal, and I think this guy should be fired", "Always sad to see someone avoiding painful inward journey of discovery", and otherwise negative reviews. The profile isn't up there anymore since Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado for academic misconduct, but I still found it pretty funny.

  5. People as ideologically and partisanly entrenched as Flanagan and Byers tend to get mixed reviews.

    I'd also suspect that a great many of the reviews of these individuals on are fraudulent. Ratemyprofessor doesn't require someone to prove that they actually took the course, and both individuals have probably been victimized by unscrupulous individuals looking to harm their reputation by giving them poor -- and fraudulent -- ratings on that site.

    I know for a fact this can be done. After seeing Expelled, I tried to unravel some of the claims made both by and against some of the individuals in the film. I visited Ratemyprofessor and registered an intentionally-middling and explicitly fraudulent review of her course (I even wrote that "I haven't taken this course" in my review). A couple weeks later it was still there, and may even be there now.

    Considering the number of comments on there denouncing her as a "liar" and denigrating religion, it was clear that a lot of the people who rated her on that site hadn't taken her course either.


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