Tolerance for Diversity Breaks Out at McGill

[This column was originally posted on “Context with Lorna Dueck” six months ago. Alas, the issues remain live all over the continent.]

It’s a “man decides not to bite dog” story. The Montreal Gazette reports that the judicial board of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) came to the “inescapable conclusion” that “any motion that specifically targets one nation and compels SSMU to actively campaign against that country, such as the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] motion, is unconstitutional.”

Thus McGill’s student council refused to choose sides in the politics of Israel and Palestine. It thus refused to divide the community of scholars on its campus, and instead let this important and complex debate roll on.

Story after story in the North American media have highlighted campuses exploding in rage over political differences. Professors have been vilified, student groups disqualified, lectures and ceremonies disrupted, and administrations roundly criticized for making things worse or not nearly enough better, according to some value upon which this or that militant individual or group insists on imposing on everyone else.

I’ve been proud that one of my “alma maters,” the University of Chicago, has set a fine example of protecting free expression on its campus and among its constituents in its “Statement on Principles of Free Expression,” composed by law professor Geoffrey R. Stone in 2012. Among its bracing paragraphs is this superbly balanced and forthright directive:

“For members of the University community, as for the University itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression. It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

(See also a later official statement here.)

McGill University can be proud of its student council, the SSMU. While other Canadian and American universities have been riven over this or that controversy, McGill’s student leaders refused to lose sight of what is crucial to the university’s mission: the free exchange of ideas in a single community of serious conversation.

The person who handed me my last diploma, former University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray, makes clear the character of a university that resolutely maintains its proper focus:

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

As happens more often than our conflict-obsessed media tend to indicate, good sense once again prevailed on a Canadian university campus as McGill student leaders did the right thing. As someone whose entire adult life has been spent in universities, for good and for ill, I rejoice in this bit of news about what could have happened, and fortunately didn’t.

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