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Yes to neutrality

In their recent editorial (“No to neutrality”, 27 October 2014), the McGill Daily editorial board attempted to equate a position of neutrality on a political issue with an affirmance of the status quo, when nothing could be further from the truth. Under the editorial board’s model of neutrality, one must reject the notion of an organization with purely non-political aims. Every association, from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) to a local hockey club, must adopt a political stance on every issue, because a failure to condemn an alleged human rights violation, social inequity or environmental problem is equivalent to tacit support for the same. In the world envisioned by the editorial board, every activity, no matter how benign, is politicized, and every community, no matter how ideologically diverse, is polarized. Of course, the reality is that the definition of neutrality used by the editorial board is simply wrong. Neutrality is not itself a stance on a given issue; it is the absence of a stance on that issue. It has long been recognized that in a liberal, tolerant society, organizations without an explicitly political mandate can and should adopt a position of neutrality on political issues. Unlike SSMU, neither RASC nor most hockey clubs have adopted policies on weapons development, oil pipelines, or Canadian military intervention in Iran. This is because the whole point of these organizations is to allow a diverse group of people from all walks of life to temporarily put aside their ideological views in order to come together to enjoy stargazing and hockey, which are inherently non-political activities. Introducing political positions into the mix would be more than a mere distraction for these groups; it would be antithetical to their respective missions. For essentially the same reasons, SSMU should also be a largely neutral,… Read More

A time for dialogue

I applaud the McGill community for postponing indefinitely the Motion Calling on SSMU to Stand in Solidarity with the People of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and affirming that the SSMU not just condemn Israel on such a multidimensional and complex issue. It is of paramount importance to recognize that this was not a victory for the students who opposed the proposed motion, but a victory for the entire student body. As McGill students, postponing the motion indefinitely was a sincere effort to prevent an uncomfortable divide among ourselves. The motion was divisive as it endorsed the narrative of one side while silencing the voice of the other. The issue was not that the motion involved taking a stance - but that it involved taking a damaging stance. The motion lacked both historical and political context and was evasive with respect to the many key players in the unfortunate plight of the Palestinian people. I believe this is why the student body stood so divided over this issue and why it needed to be tabled at the General Assembly. Having said that, discourse should not, and must not, be tabled. In order to truly advance human rights and justice, it is in the best interests of all McGill students to work together in a collaborative effort to engage in dialogue, and come to conclusions through compromise as well as mutual respect and understanding. These efforts will unify the student body rather than divide it. We must take advantage of the fact that we are part of a university with a diverse student body and do whatever in our power to promote reconciliation between various student groups. Those who would have voted in support of the motion said they felt marginalized; those who would have opposed it said they would feel marginalized… Read More

University administrators should not get to vote

The case of Robert Buckingham illustrates why ex officio members of academic senates should not be voting members: they cannot exercise independence in judgement or action without risking their jobs. Robert Buckingham was the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan from 2009 until last Wednesday (14 May). Buckingham had spoken publicly against bringing public health into the department of medicine. He also revealed that U of S president Illene Busch-Vishniac had cautioned administrators to keep their criticisms of the restructuring to themselves. Buckingham will remain a professor of public health. The university had originally sought to fire him outright, but, because as a professor he is protected contractually by academic freedom, the university backtracked and relieved him only of his deanship. The academic senate at a university is that university’s highest body with regard to policies that affect teaching, learning, and research at the university. Most members of an academic senate will be professors elected by their peers, the other professors. Some members, though, will be senators by virtue of the office they hold. It is not unusual in Canada for ex officio members to make up a third of an academic senate. All of a university’s deans are ex officio members, as are other high-level academic administrators, such as the Vice President Academic or Provost. Academic administrators serve at the pleasure of the university’s president or its board of governors. Unlike professors, then, they do not enjoy the freedom to criticise their university publicly. Once a decision has been made, they must not only carry it out but support it or, at least, not question it publicly. A professor, on the other hand, while required to follow whatever rules his or her collective agreement contains, may question and criticize any decision or university… Read More

Against professionalism in the academy

The increasing professionalization of the academy inclines university professors toward careerism. Unfortunately, since careerist professors are less interesting than their more free-wheeling colleagues, the professionalization of the academy cannot but diminish the cultural significance of the university. Being a university professor might well be a calling. It also happens to be a job. Professors are employees, and the universities at which they work are their employers. As employees, professors have an interest in pay, working conditions, job security, and the rest; as employers, universities have an interest in getting value for the money they pay professors. You might have heard about what is sometimes called “the tripod”: research, teaching, and service. The professors and the universities, in times long gone, decided that these would be the three areas of the professor’s job. Except in extremely rare cases, a professor is contractually obligated to conduct research, teach students, and contribute to the well-being of academic life, and to do each of these three things well. When a professor applies for tenure or promotion, he or she will be evaluated on the strength of his or her research, teaching, and service. Now that’s all fine, and, indeed, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. Professors and universities alike have good reason to want to put down in writing just what they expect of each other, and just what they are entitled to. Too much is at stake in decisions about tenure or promotion for the Collective Agreement or whatever to fail to describe what’s to be evaluated and to specify standards. Yet it is just as important that the Collective Agreement doesn’t say too much about what falls under the three headings and does not specify standards too precisely. If a university is to be a place of intellectual discovery… Read More

Introducing “Generation Screwed”

Searching for a number young Canadians should care about? How about $1.2 trillion? That is the amount of debt future generations of Canadians have been saddled with by governments across Canada. Governments who have continually spent beyond their means, seemingly unnerved by the prospect of sticking future generations with the bill for benefits they enjoyed. The scope of this reckless fiscal management knows no bounds. From coast-to-coast-to-coast, NDP, Liberal and Conservative governments share in the blame for the mountains of debt they have put on the backs of future generations of taxpayers. In the most recent fiscal year, 2012-13, the federal government and every province (save Saskatchewan) ran a deficit – adding a whopping $42 billion to total government debt. In Ottawa, despite the fact government revenues are $12 billion higher than during the pre-recession peak, the Harper government continues to run a deficit – the result of out-of-control, runaway spending – not an economic downturn. In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government has abandoned deficit-reduction targets all-together.  In doing so she has forgone the economically responsible approach, choosing instead to pursue reckless spending policies to extend her political life, all at the expense of future generations. It’s time for these future generations to have a voice. Unfortunately, government debt is the tip of the iceberg facing future generations. Unfunded liabilities, by comparison, present an even greater threat, representing future payment obligations for which the government has neglected to set money aside. In Canada, the C.D. Howe Institute estimates this will total an additional $1.5 trillion in health and pension expenditures over the next fifty years – a figure even greater than Canada’s total government debt. The Fraser Institute pegs it at an even higher $2.9 trillion when all program obligations are included. And where will this money come from? The… Read More

EDITORIAL: Free Speech on Campus

These past few days, free speech on campus has been top of mind for our readers thanks to our special series. The testimonies of student leaders and activists from a wide variety of university campuses have enlightened us on how to identify and fight common threats to free speech at our own home campus. The Prince Arthur Herald itself was founded because of issues with the narrowness of the platform for free speech at McGill University. The McGill Daily dominated campus opinion as a mouthpiece for the student union. We founded the Herald to help provide alternative views and give students the chance to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal from the left. Since then, the Herald has become an example of how to broaden the free speech environment on campus for students across the country and continues to influence alternative campus opinions. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom's Campus Freedom Index is also an important barometer and wake up call for the state of free speech on Canadian university campuses. According to the 2013 release, 51% of Canadian universities were failing to provide a free speech environment for students. JCCF looked specifically at university administration and student government codes of conduct and practices with red flags such as policies conducive of censorship of free expression, restrictions on academic  freedom and asymmetries in how some student groups were treated over others. While our student activists in the series pointed to many improvements on their own campuses since the release of the index, more work still needs to be done. Threats to campus free speech appear to be evolving into new forms. A recent article published by The Globe and Mail expounded on a new threat to academic freedom: the trigger warning. Some student groups have demanded that professors provide… Read More
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