Press Release Re: President-Designate University of Toronto

April 2000

The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship is gravely concerned about the threat to academic freedom and the merit principle that is implied by some recent remarks by Dean Robert Birgeneau of MIT. Dr. Birgeneau is president-designate of the University of Toronto and is due to take up office on July 1 of this year. The two remarks occurred on two separate visits by president-designate Birgeneau to Toronto when he met with U. of T. administrators.

One remark, reported in the Toronto Star, January 9, was that he told U. of T. administrators that "if they did not share his views on diversity, they may as well step down." The other remark, reported in the Star, February 8, not only appeared to repeat the threat, but extended its scope to include "anyone in a leadership position" who, Birgeneau was reported to have said, "can find something else to do." President-designate Birgeneau was reported to have stated in a later interview (National Post, February 26) that he had been "misrepresented," but has not specifically stated in what respects these misrepresentations occurred.

Especially as there is a wide range of legitimate views on "diversity" and "equity," without further clarification on his part, Dr. Birgeneau’s remarks are deeply disturbing. They at least suggest an intention on his part to run one of Canada's leading universities with a degree of imposed conformity that is incompatible with a genuine institution of higher education, as well as being inconsistent with the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) principles on academic freedom. Those CAUT principles explicitly include "freedom to criticize the university" and "freedom from institutional censorship." SAFS therefore protests the serious threat to academic freedom implied by his remarks, and urges him either to withdraw them or to clarify how they are compatible with freedom from institutional censorship, a cornerstone of Canadian academic life.