Health of Swedish academia questioned following introduction of reading list gender quotas

Can universities force teachers to use some texts rather than others in the reading list to their own courses? The question arises following the introduction of female author gender quotas at a department at Lund University, Sweden. At least 40% of the course literature should according to department rules be written by female authors. The policy has stunned international observers who are now questioning the health of Swedish academia.

The case of lecturer Erik Ringmar at the Department of Political Science at Lund University has baffled international commentators. The story has been published elsewhere, and fully documented on Academic Rights Watch’s Swedish homepage. However, recent developments make it worthwhile to revisit the case.

Ringmar decided to cancel his course on the modern history of conservative and fascist thought. This was after the department introduced a rule that forces teachers to use gender quotas for course literature where at least 40% of the literature should be written by female authors. The department’s policy in this matter is based on an earlier policy document produced centrally at Lund University. It is in line with Swedish government gender policy which is implemented at Swedish universities through a unit called the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, which is at the same time, suspiciously, a department-like research unit at the University of Gothenburg raising serious questions about university autonomy.

The very idea of ​​the course was that it would be based on conservative primary literature from late 1800 and early 1900. Ringmar, however, was not able to find enough female conservative writers to fill the 40% quota.

Ringmar, who describes himself as a leftist, describes his frustrating situation in a blog post:

It seems that all dark blue reactionaries were men. The women, at least those who express themselves in writing, were predominantly liberal and progressive. In the end I managed anyway to find a female writer who opposed women’s suffrage.

But that obviously wasn’t good enough. The Director of Studies remarked that such a course would never be approved by the department’s literature committee. Indeed, in particular the student representatives criticized it for “lack of focus on gender”. A compromise was nevertheless reached. The course would be approved if Ringmar promised to include Judith Butler, a radical feminist writer in the poststructuralist tradition – which he did.

When the course started, Ringmar however choose to leave out Butler on grounds of irrelevance. “No literature committee in the world can force me to teach Judith Butler if I do not want to,” writes Ringmar on his blog.

The decision led some students to complain to the Department Dean that the course did not follow the reading list. At that point, Ringmar decided he had had enough and cancelled the course:

Since I insisted on giving a course on ancient obscurantism, I have now gained the reputation as “anti-feminist”and my course has become something to be “singled out” and “revealed”’. … I have after careful consideration, decided not to give the course again. I will not be bullied by students and I do not want strange rumors to be spread about me among colleagues. Too bad, I think, because fascism is an important topic, especially right now.

As Academic Rights Watch concluded in its analysis of the case on its Swedish homepage, coercive measures against teachers is contrary to the UNESCO recommendations concerning the status of higher-education teaching personnel (1997). Here is Article 28:

Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use curricula and methods contrary to national and international human rights standards. Higher education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.

The Department’s treatment of Erik Ringmar is a striking example of how teachers are “forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience”. However, the UNESCO recommendations are not law in Sweden, which, unlike Hungary for example, does not have any legal statutes guaranteeing the freedom to teach. Still, the Swedish state and Swedish universities are committed to doing everything they can to satisfy the UNESCO recommendations. It is obvious that Sweden and Lund University have failed in this respect.

The case has been commented upon by several observers. Beside Academic Rights Watch, Swedish journalist Ivar Arpi analyses the case in detail in an article in Quilette. Arpi views the case as illustrating the precarious situation for academic freedom in Sweden:

This is just one example of academic freedom being traded for a specific vision of social justice, and similar processes are taking place across the country. This process is called gender mainstreaming and it threatens academic freedom at all Swedish universities.

The case was also discussed in an article by Jan Petter Myklebust in University World News, which includes interviews with several people in leadership position. Curiously, none of the Swedish interviewees is clearly against female author quotas, although some call for more autonomy for Swedish universities generally.

A critical article is German journalist Thomas Steinfeld’s commentary in leading Süddeutsche Zeitung. As Steinfeld sees it, the Ringmar example is one in which “certified norm engineers attack the freedom of science in the name of the state”. Bearing in mind the ideological control imposed on universities during the Nazi regime, this must be a frightening scenario from a German perspective.

An instructive video clip on the Youtube channel Independent Man is also seriously questioning the health of Swedish academia in the light of the Ringmar case.

Finally, Judith Butler herself was recently interviewed about the matter in the Swedish journal Kvartal. It turns out that even Butler, an arch feminist, strongly objects to using gender quotas in reading lists. Unhappy about the way in which her book was used in the particular case, she observes that “academic freedom recognizes the right of university teachers to conceive their courses in accordance with their own professional judgement” adding that she is “against attempts to force teachers to lecture on specific texts or authors” (our translation back to English throughout). This testifies to the degree of radicalism with which Sweden is now pushing forward its gender policies