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Task Force on respect and inclusion addresses free speech

Press conference addresses “respectful and inclusive debate” in university context

On Tuesday November 21, the Principal’s Task Force on Respect and Inclusion in Campus Life held a press conference. Co-chairs Bruce Lennox, the Dean of the Faculty of Science, and Nandini Ramanujam, the Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, answered questions from representatives of the student press.

The Task Force is focusing on “respectful and inclusive debate” in the university context, and how the university can develop the “best practices” to handle conflict over issues of free speech. Detailed information is available on the McGill website.

“The specific term of reference […] begins with the statement: ‘the university values the variety of opinions and experiences of members of the McGill community and encourages the open and respectful expression of that diversity.’ So our mandate is to explore and create concrete recommendations and frame that statement, to operationalize that statement,” explained Lennox.
Ramanujam spoke about her earlier research on enabling environments and how that work is related to the mission of the task force.

“We have been working around the concept of enabling environment for a civil society, and theorizing about […] what makes a civil society flourish [and] engag[ing] with the process of institution building in a democratic setting,” said Ramanujam. “When I was asked to be part of this task force it resonated with me because I do care about an enabling environment, an inclusive, respectful enabling environment.”

The task force is under the office of the Principal, meaning that it will report to senate once it has completed its research and determined its recommendations. It has no direct power to enact policy change; however, it serves as an advisory body for the Principal moving forward.

“The nature of task forces are working groups, and they have a finite timeline with a set of recommendations and, if possible some, sort of a plan of moving forward on how universities could operationalize or implement these recommendations. […] Until our committee meets for the first time we won’t be able to assess our capacity in the tight timeline to assess some of these issues,” said Ramanujam.

The task force is currently in the organizational phase and the committee has not met yet. However, they are currently working on a survey which will be sent out to the entire student body. Lennox summarized the timeline of the task force and the various steps to be undertaken in the coming months.

“We have a deadline of completion of a survey […] by December 7, [then] we will be undertaking a series of focus groups throughout January and February. […] Now we’re just getting people on the ground who can organize that. We will be undertaking a town hall at the end of January. […] We’ll [then] have the progress report to senate, which will be about process, not content, by the end of February, and a status report, which will have elements of content, at the end of March senate meeting.”

A news editor from the McGill Tribune, Calvin Trottier-Chi, asked whether the task force is related to the investigation by the administration into events that transpired at the Fall General Assembly, which sparked allegations of anti-semitism.

Lennox responded, “we’re not linked to that, […] and any reporting that’s done we will receive it as the university public does. So this task force is not related to that initiative at all.”

“This sort of task force [and] the discussion that the task force is undertaking has been a topic of discussion at the university for years, as far as I’m aware […] having a group such as us to work in the university community about [this topic]is far more than a year old discussion,” continued Lennox.

“At the Faculty of Law level we have been talking […] for a long time about safe spaces or inclusive spaces, respectful spaces,” said Ramanujam. “I see this as something which is neither the beginning nor the end of this process. I think we’ve had task forces before that have looked at issues of freedom of expression […] it’s almost like a burgeoning exercise for the university and so I just feel that our work is part of a continuous process in the university space.”

Following this discussion, a writer from the Bull and Bear asked how the task force will define the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Lennox reiterated that the task force is not precisely related to this issue.

“I’d say that the granularity of that is something that is unlikely that we will be addressing. Again, the level of discussion of this task force is about the role of respectful debate in a university. […] So there are issues, you’ve touched on a couple of issues, that are issues that are the subject of debate, but we’re not going to be dealing with [these] topics […] we will be steering the discussion into how does one engage in a respectful debate in order to discuss whichever topic.”

“There’s an obvious coincidence, but […] this has been identified as a need, this university wide discussion about inclusion and respectful debate. The time is now. […] Several Canadian universities, they’re dealing with incidents and they are reacting […] without policy, without having the discussion.” Lennox continued, “we can’t allow this topic to be one that surfaces only when there are issues of concern. […] It’s part of the DNA of this institution, freedom of expression, and how do we how do we manage it? […] Right now we will assure you that this is not about an incident or a crisis, it’s about who we are as an institution.”

When asked to elaborate on what he meant by “incidents,” Lennox referred to the recent controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University, where a teaching assistant was reprimanded for showing her class a video about whether or not people should use gender neutral pronouns.

“So this week, [there’s] been a very prominent news story [at] Wilfred Laurier University. […] It’s a situation [about] what can be presented in the classroom setting, and it’s pretty complex,” said Lennox.

“It’s an example of where you haven’t had the discussion that we wish to undertake, an example that if you’re not working within a framework, that you can be dealing with situations rather than best practices.”

“The more diversified we get as a community the more we ought to be reflecting and creating a space for fostering diversity, enriching diversity and creating pathways for people to connect,” said Ramanujam.

“The overlap between respect and inclusion is respectful debate, respectful discussion, and I think that intersection, the venn diagram of those two entities, I think that’s where we’re going to operate. That’s where the concerns in every North American university lie. It’s not just McGill. How does one apply the concepts of freedom of expression within an academic environment as a society’s safe space as an entity, how does one operationalize that? How does one make it a reality? So we’re going to continue to come back to the terminology of respectful debate,” said Lennox.

Towards the end of the press conference, the Tribune asked about a conflict at McGill that happened a few years ago in which faculty member Andrew Potter resigned after publishing an essay that criticized Quebec.

“What would you say the limits and benefits of free speech are? For example, with Andrew Potter resigning last year, would you say he should have been protected under free speech or was his article critiquing Quebec not respectful debate?”

Lennox replied, “I’m not going to comment on that incident. What’s the role of free speech? Free speech is how we share in knowledge. A lot of knowledge is created by understanding one another. If you can’t do it in a university environment, you can’t do it anywhere. [O]ur society expects people to be able to express their point of view, to debate it, to listen. That as a method, as a construct, has incredible value.”