Commentary | What is a University?

An open letter to the McGill Community

What is a university? Is it a place where students come to learn and faculty come to research. A place where knowledge is produced and individuals trained? Or is it more than this: an ideal, a community founded on and embodying the belief that the full and free exchange of ideas has some fundamental value? My rhetorical construction of this question allows for only one answer, I admit. But I actually do want you to consider the question: what is a university? This is a question that has been on my mind since the McGill administration sought and obtained an injunction severely curtailing the ability of striking MUNACA workers to picket.

The university is a unique institution in our society and fundamental to its unique identity, is a commitment to the search for knowledge. The character of this knowledge may vary from department to department, ranging from the practical to the abstract to the arcane. But the common thread animating the functioning of the otherwise unconnected disciplines housed by a university is a commitment to the open exchange of knowledge and ideas. Exchange of ideas necessarily requires more than a cursory commitment to freedom of expression. On the contrary, freedom of expression is the very essence of a university. It is written into its structure, as the basis of faculty tenure.

It is for this reason that I was shocked to hear about this injunction and to read its terms. For those of you who haven’t done so, these include: “TO CEASE AND ABSTAIN from impeding, obstructing or inhibiting the free circulation of pedestrian or vehicular traffic within 4 meters of the entries and exits” of McGill property; “TO CEASE AND ABSTAIN from assembling in a group of more than 15 persons within 4 meters of the entries and exits”; “TO CEASE AND ABSTAIN from using a microphone, speaker, loudspeaker, stereo, or any other tool or machine used for the purpose of amplifying voice or sound within 25 meters” of McGill property.

Regardless of how you feel about the strike, or about strikes in general, I ask you to think about this measure in the light of a university’s underlying commitment to the inherent value of free expression. In its weekly email of September 26, the McGill administration claimed that it sought the injunction because picketers were preventing the delivery of sensitive materials and endangering the safety of pedestrians. It repeated these assertions without further clarification by email on September 29. All I can say to these claims is that, in my experience, the picketers have always been courteous, respectful, and accommodating. These latest statements by McGill come in a line of misleading characterizations of the “threats” posed by striking workers, and I remain skeptical as to their truth value. Equally significant, however, was the additional justification put forth by the administration that the “noise level […] was unacceptably high.” It is this latter complaint that particularly unnerves me.  This justification proposes, essentially, that the inconveniences and annoyances suffered by one sector of the McGill community trump the rights to free expression of another.

Lest you object that this “noise” supposedly obstructing the research and teaching at this institution is simply that – noise, low-value speech – take a moment to consider the function of a picket for an otherwise voiceless and invisible community. The administration sends us weekly emails outlining its position on the strike (emails I would ask you to read with a grain of salt, mindful of the partiality of the source). MUNACA workers have no such captive audience. They have their bodies and their voices, and the public spaces in which to manifest their presence. They have the strength of numbers and the ability to use this strength to remind us of their existence; to remind us that they are standing at the gate, waiting for a contract to be reached. This kind of noise is eloquent.

The ideal of free expression is an abstract principle. It is sometimes an inconvenient principle, but it is nonetheless fundamental to the very meaning of a university. If we do not hold to our ideals when they are inconvenient, they lose their meaning. In seeking such a dramatic curtailing of the free expression and assembly of MUNACA workers, this administration has essentially stated that the raw production of knowledge has a greater value than the animating principle of this institution. This is not a position with which I can agree.
McGill is not a business. It has obligations deeper than the smooth and efficient functioning of the academic machine. It is a community with a social function and with foundational principles that it has an ethical obligation to uphold. This administration may have convinced the Court of the justice of granting an injunction; it has not convinced me of its rectitude in seeking one.  This particular injunction expires on October 13. As a student and a member of the University community, I call on our administration to immediately cease from employing such tactics.

Ruth Ainsworth is a student in the Faculty of Law. She can be reached at

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