March 19, 2003

SAFS Letter to Lorna R. Marsden, President and Vice-Chancellor, York University

Dr. Lorna R. Marsden
President and Vice-Chancellor
York University
4700 Keele St.
Toronto, ON
M3J 1P3

Dear President Marsden:

I am writing to you as president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.  As you may know, our Society represents a broad cross-section of professional academics, students and interested others from across Canada, and elsewhere.  Our goals are to maintain freedom in teaching, research and scholarship, and to support the merit principle in Canadian higher education.   You can learn more about us at our website:

According to stories in the Globe and Mail and the National Post, several incidents have occurred at York University recently that are troubling.  The first of these concerns the visit of Dr. Daniel Pipes to York.  Dr. Pipes was invited and then uninvited by the Centre for International and Security Studies, and described by both the York University Faculty Association and the York Federation of Students as having a racist agenda.  Once at York, extraordinary security was required to allow him to speak, with protesters intimidating those wishing to hear him.  In the end, fortunately, he was allowed to speak but only because of the intervention of your office.   We applaud your commitment to academic freedom in making the alternate arrangements to enable Dr. Pipes to speak.

In the more recent episode of concern, students and others protesting a possible war in Iraq apparently broke prior agreements with the university to keep open the entrances to the campus and intimidated several students, including those at a booth set up by the campus Canadian Alliance Party.  In addition, several of these protesters were arrested, although they were released without being charged.

In a letter to the Globe and Mail (March 12), Mr. Richard Fisher, Chief Communications Officer, defended the university against some of the assertions made against it.  We appreciate many of his points including the fact that York did arrange campus security for the anti-war protests, called in the city police to help, and is not responsible for intemperate remarks made by faculty and student organizations.   We also agree that those who were wronged should come forward and make formal complaints to allow the university to deal with them in an appropriate manner.

The purpose of this letter is to ask whether more could be done to eliminate intimidation on campus and increase the appreciation for academic freedom and the value of reasoned discussion.  Without wishing to be presumptuous, we would like to suggest that it might be useful for you, as president of the university, to issue a public statement upholding the university’s commitment to an open campus, free from intimidation, where teaching and scholarship may continue without regard to conventional dogma or political beliefs.   Indeed, one of the important purposes of a university is to provide a forum in which to debate controversial ideas.

We recognize that York University does stand for these academic values, but they cannot be repeated too often, especially on a campus which has had to go to some lengths recently to defend them.   It has been said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and it would be worthwhile, in our view,  for York University to issue a formal statement, in your name, reminding the campus community of its obligations to defend academic freedom and tolerate opposing views.

Clive Seligman, President

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