The Encampment’s Faculty Cheerleaders

On April 26 this year, University of Toronto Provost Trevor Young issued a memo to senior administrators strongly discouraging [my italics] institutional, divisional, and departmental statements about local or global events. The memo approvingly quoted the University of Chicago’s iconic Kalven Report and concluded that “[the university’s] role is not to act as an arbiter among competing positions.”

Guidance for Administrators

The memo was explicit in its guidance for administrators, which I quote, “To maintain an environment [of respectful dialogue], and in light of the internal diversity of our community, the issuance or endorsement of a public statement that purports to represent the views of everyone in an academic unit or program is strongly discouraged.”

The guidance didn’t enumerate who constitutes “everyone,” but a reasonable interpretation would mean faculty, staff, and students. Perhaps a department that wishes to release a statement would take issue with the word “purport,” and claim that its statement actually represents the views of everyone. However, unanimity is intrinsically most improbable in an academic setting. If a faction in a department that includes the most senior faculty wants to issue a statement, the rest of the department, fearing reprisals, would likely be silent. In that case “purport” would be an accurate description of the situation.

One could also argue that “everyone” includes not just current students but potential faculty, staff, and students, and that if a department makes a public statement, it would discourage those who don’t agree with the statement from joining the department in any one of these three roles. This is especially problematic for students who for many reasons do not have much flexibility in their choice of a university. If they want to major in a given field, or even take a course in that field, they may have to do it in a department with official views they find antagonistic, chilling, or odious.

My Own Approach

I served as Chair of the Department of Management at UTSC for a decade, so I was a recipient of memos from the Provost. I would not have been troubled, indeed I would have been comforted, by this memo. Undoubtedly there would be diverse opinions in the department about any issue of public concern. If the department, under my leadership, endorsed one side or another, those who supported the other side would have been disappointed or even incensed, and it would have made it more difficult for me to work with them. It is axiomatic in public administration, my field of scholarship, that certain roles such as public servants working for a democratically elected government require neutrality. Thus, I would have been comfortable with the notion of personal neutrality as department chair.

Who are the Cheerleader Departments?

The event now at the forefront of people’s minds at the University is the Occupy for Palestine encampment. Individual faculty, staff, and students are vigorously expressing their opinions, as is their right. Despite the strong discouragement in the Provost’s memo sent out the week before the encampment began, I understand that some departments have issued statements about the encampment.

I was at the encampment yesterday and saw this sign. When I checked online the Department of Geography and Planning had no statement posted on its website.

But I learned that the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, on the home page of its website, has posted a “statement of solidarity with the People’s Circle for Palestine.” The statement “firmly stands in solidarity with the students” and supports their demands for divestment and cutting ties with Israeli universities. It urges the administration to “refrain from threatening students with police violence,” that is, to seek an injunction to allow the police to clear the encampment. It describes the encampment as a “precious space” with a “beautiful library,” descriptions with which many people in the university would forcefully disagree. Being a Zionist, I would not have the opportunity to visit them. As a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll include one I took of a poster on the encampment fence, which makes clear OfP’s attitude towards Zionists like me. How would the university administration would react to a similar poster with “feminist” or “environmental” instead of “Zionist”?

A Question for the Provost

I conclude with a question for the Provost. This statement is in clear contravention of your policy. Why are you permitting it to remain on the departmental website? Have you looked for other statements concerning the encampment that contravene your guidance? If so, why are you permitting them to remain?

4 Responses to “The Encampment’s Faculty Cheerleaders”

  1. Louis Florence Avatar
    Louis Florence

    I have been involved with the UT since 1974, as a graduate student,TA, and a faculty in Mathematics and Management. This is the worst, the saddest time I have ever experienced in relation to my view of and the reputation of the university, by a wide margin.

  2. Tom Steenburg Avatar
    Tom Steenburg

    Well said.

  3.  Avatar

    I’d like your perspective on this article and the contents of it. Please note the date of publication:

  4. Sandford Borins Avatar

    It’s not relevant to this post.

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