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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

When people speak of attacks on academic freedom, they tend to mean metaphorical ones, like the disinvitation of a controversial speaker. Not so at the University of Waterloo where, last week, a 24-year-old man allegedly stabbed the professor and two students in a 40-person classroom, an incident reminiscent of the 1989 École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre.

Motivations for violence are not always straightforward, but in this case, it rather seems to be. Per the Waterloo police report, “The accused targeted a gender-studies class and investigators believe this was a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.” Factor in the chilling student testimony, and it sounds clear enough that this was an attack on a gender class because it was that type of course.

And yet, one part isn’t so clear: If someone hates gender studies enough to physically attack a class, what is it they think they’re doing? This is important in order to sort out who, exactly, is under attack, and therefore in need of greater protection.

The obvious assumption, given “gender studies,” is that the alleged attacker hates women, sexual minorities, or both. But another possibility worth exploring – one not mutually exclusive with the first – is that this was an act of hate against academia itself.

Conservatives have a long tradition of pooh-poohing academia, but they used to bemoan tenured hippies and promiscuous students. Recent criticism has centred instead on “grievance studies,” or academic fields supposedly devoted to identity-based activism. And some on the right – not just very-online radicals, but also some Republican politicians in the U.S. – believe the answer is to stop progressive academia at the source. Some see this as a funding matter. Others take it further.

The New York Times just reported on a bleak story out of the University of Chicago, where I went to college. A conservative undergraduate there saw that the school was offering an anthropology course called “The Problem of Whiteness,” and decided to call out what he (foolishly) saw as anti-white racism. He used social media to send his fellow travellers the professor’s way. They were, let us say, not offering constructive criticism of her course’s subject matter. One of them e-mailed her: “‘Blow your head clean off.’”

It then became too dangerous for the lecturer to teach her class. When the course was cancelled, the student – who insisted he didn’t condone threats – tweeted, “‘This is a huge victory.’ ” The course was able to take place later, but under “amped up security” and with the location not publicly listed.

The student-activist was, the Times explains, protected by the University of Chicago’s free speech policy. The lecturer and her students were not. But if you can’t teach or take a class without guards, in what sense do you have academic freedom?

The Waterloo and Chicago stories both point to a broader pattern. Gender studies are viewed on the right as ground zero for not just feminism but also the fuzzily defined concept of “gender ideology.” Their thinking is that were it not for gender studies, and its concept of a divide between gender identity and biological sex, we’d still be in a world where, to quote 1970s sitcom patriarch Archie Bunker, “girls were girls and men were men.” Much of the fear-mongering “groomer” discourse (the canard about queer people sexualizing the youths) points a finger at gender studies.

It doesn’t add up – gender non-conforming people predate Judith Butler’s theory that gender is performative. And the “grooming” stuff is hateful nonsense. But gender studies is responsible, in a roundabout way, for some of the more dogmatic and jargony ways in which gender gets discussed. Yet the field deserves credit for helping the general public have the language to understand issues of concern to many. So, all told, it’s a mixed bag. Same with ethnic studies, the right’s other academic bugaboo.

Many critiques of academia come from a place of ignorance, fuelled by incendiary media coverage, and do not accurately represent what goes on in the classroom. Others, however, come from people who do know what they’re talking about. Academic disciplines should be able to face criticism. That in and of itself doesn’t curtail free expression. It ought to be a healthy sign of academia’s real-world relevance. But it ceases to be so the moment the classroom itself is under physical attack.

The takeaway from the horror in Waterloo is not that anyone skeptical of gender theory is somehow implicated in the attack. It’s that bare minimum, academic freedom is the ability to teach or take a class without the threat of deadly assault.

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