December 5, 2008
Dear Dr. Deane:
Re: Dialogue Facilitators
I am writing to you on behalf of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. Our society is committed to defending academic freedom in research and teaching and the merit principle in decisions about faculty and students. You can learn more about our organization at our website: www.safs.ca
According to many media reports in the last two weeks, Queen’s University has introduced a program to improve intergroup understanding by hiring several students to act as dialogue facilitators. Although the goal of having civil relationships among students, especially of different backgrounds, is worthy, we have serious reservations about the method Queen’s has chosen to bring about that goal.
As we understand it, facilitators will be on the alert for offensive comments made by fellow students, mostly in student residences. The facilitator’s job is then to try to engage the so-called offending students in a dialogue so that it becomes clear that the targeted remarks were inappropriate. We appreciate that the facilitators will try to intervene in a sensitive and measured manner. However, in addition to the essential question of whether it is proper for the university to take on the responsibility to teach manners to students engaged in private conversations, we have several other objections:
First, students are entitled to privacy in their personal conversations. We wonder at the potential damage that would be done to private life by being constantly on the lookout for professional eavesdroppers.
Second, it is very arrogant of the administration to assign to the facilitators the task of deciding when someone else has violated perceived norms. On what basis can the facilitator claim to be more sensitive or knowledgeable than the students directly involved in their own conversation? Given the role that irony, sarcasm, and context play in language, it is not even clear that the facilitator will correctly interpret the presumed offending remarks.
Third, and most important from our society’s perspective, sending a message that some types of evaluations or language use are more appropriate than others will necessarily lead to self-censorship. It is hard to imagine that the facilitators, no matter how well trained or well intentioned, will not have biases in their own world views. We wonder whether the types of comments that will trigger an intervention will fall equally across value preferences, e.g., will anti-American slurs be noted to the same extent as anti-Muslim slurs, will advocates of abortion receive the same attention as opponents of abortion, will conversations favoring same-sex marriage receive the same scrutiny as ones opposing it, and so on. Over time, what will be taught will be so-called correct views and not simply polite language usage.
In our opinion, the downsides of the Dialogue Facilitators’ program far exceed the potential gains, and we urge you end it.
We are pleased that the feedback Queen’s has received has led you to strike a committee that will advise you on the future course of this program. We hope that the committee will respond with alternative suggestions to this intrusive program, for example, holding voluntary workshops, debates, and panel sessions and letting the students participate in and react as they would to any other learning opportunity.
We hope we will hear from you, and, if so, we will post your unedited reply along with our letter on our website.
Sincerely, Clive Seligman, President.