Defending Freedom in the Politicized University

September 2003

Summary of Keynote Address to the AGM by Dr Fred Lowy, Rector, Concordia University

Prepared by Chris Furedy

[Clive Seligman introduced Dr Lowy as one who always sees the good in people.]

Dr. Lowyrecalled Clark Kerr’s remark as he left UC Berkeley (as president) in 1967: “I leave this university as I entered it – fired with enthusiasm.”

His themes: Concordia University has always been politicized, and this politicization was exploited deliberately by a small group of Ontario graduate students who entered Concordia with this objective. Student activism has a long history and is not necessarily bad; it can be constructive, but this was not the case at Concordia.

The background for the academic culture that has developed at Concordia: It comes from the traditions of the two institutions that were amalgamated in 1974 (Loyola and Sir George Williams). Sir George Williams University had a ‘political tradition’ and riots in the 1960s. The downtown campus is part of the ‘downtown scene’ and attracts many non-Concordia students.

An important feature is the ‘diversity’ of Concordia – this is true of both students and faculty.

He explained the beliefs of the radical graduate students that promoted politicization:Their inspiration comes from anarchist thinking, and philosophers and educationists such as Herbert Marcuse and Paolo Freire. They reject the very purpose of a traditional university, holding that universities support the status quo and thus broader social change must begin with destabilizing universities.

An important factor in the strength of the student movement is that student unions in Quebec can have labour union status and independence, so that the administration at Concordia lost control of the $1.3 million in fees students pay to the union.

The radical graduate students formed an alliance with a group of Muslim pro-Palestinian students, although as anarchists the former were not really interested in Middle East politics and the latter do not want to destabilize Canada. It was a pragmatic alliance. (There are estimated to be about 4000 Muslim students).

Explaining how the conflict between the student union and the Administration escalated, Lowy said that in the beginning the Administration took the usual stand of allowing freedom of speech. He then described the evolution of his own thinking, acknowledging the help of SAFS’ board member Harvey Shulman in drawing his attention to an article in Front Page Magazine that spelt out two polar views of universities: the university as a social-change agent vs the university as upholding a non-politicized curriculum. A thorny issue in Lowy’s mind was whether the concept of academic freedom can be used to justify the indoctrination of students. Lowy stated his emphatic view that universities and professors should not be propagandists, that they have a obligation to respect truth, and that truth is facilitated by allowing the clash of opposing points of view.

World events and Concordia: While important world events have always provoked debate on campus, the Middle East issues since the new intifada were of a different order. There was a steady escalation of rhetoric and propaganda, often an ugly mood. The Administration only tried to limit this rhetoric a little – when it seemed that other students’ rights were being interfered with.

Incidents on campus and Administrative action: Lowy outlined various events, such as the setting up of a “Palestinian check point” leading up to the violence when Netanyahu attempted to speak in September 2002 at the invitation of the Jewish students’ organization Hillel.

The Administration imposed a three-month cooling-off period and there has been no violence since. There has been some progress. Students voted in a new student government, on a platform of ‘evolution not revolution.’ The Administration could not do much about the radical students, such as pursuing conviction for promoting hate, because the Criminal Code’s language makes it almost impossible to convict anyone of a hate crime. However, those who could be identified as participating in the riot have been charged.

Conclusion: Lowy concluded by saying that he believes the subversion of the core values of a university must be contained and that Concordia’s Administration must try to create a different and tolerant climate on campus. But you can’t legislate civility. He quoted George Bernard Shaw on ‘unreasonable people:’ “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”


John Furedy: Comment on the need to be clear about the distinction between acts and opinions.

Bill Fisher: Vital not to concede campuses to ‘brown shirts.’ The title of the talk should have been the limits to violence.

Lowy:Agrees authorities have to be able to anticipate violence. Now accusations are made against the Administration of repression because of the security measures.

John Palmer:Under what conditions would Ernst Zundel be allowed to speak at the university?

Lowy:There are speakers that the university invites and that are invited by student organizations. The Administration does not censor student-sponsored invitations. The university could not stop an invitation to Zundel as it would be regarded as censorship.

Ken Hillborn:The pro-Palestinian students declared beforehand that they aimed to shut down Netanyahu’s talk, so the university should have been prepared for this.

Ken Westhuis: Congratulated Lowy on his politically sophisticated talk and said no university president outside of Quebec can be imagined having come and spoken like this to such a group. Has political correctness been stronger in English Canada than in Quebec?

Lowy: The political climate in Quebec has changed since the 1970s. Now Quebec universities are more politicized than those in the rest of Canada. But it is not a qualitative difference; perhaps there is more outspokenness in Montreal.

Jeff Ascher: Asked Lowy to elaborate on what specific measures the Admin has taken to create a different climate.

Lowy: Specifically: 1) Patricia Gabel was appointed as Special Advisor to the Rector, Conflict Analysis and Management, to have discussions on conflict resolution with the different student groups; 2) A committee of faculty, administrators and students was formed to consider ways to increase inter-ethnic tolerance; 3) An academic centre was created to study inter-ethnic conflict; 4) Sanctions were imposed, mostly on the pro-Palestinian students (much criticism from them of Lowy as a result), and non-students committing violence have been banned from campus; 5) New dean of students appointed.

Rory Leishman: Are numbers of Muslim students a threat to academic freedom?

Lowy:He does not think so. But many Muslim students have come from cultures where there is no tradition of civil discourse. About 100,000 Muslims have immigrated to Quebec in the past few years. But militancy breeds militancy, and the Jewish students are more militant now too.

Rory Leishman: Isn’t there an intrinsic threat to academic freedom from such values?

Lowy:Recalled the case of a Muslim student on the board of governors who objected to wine being served at receptions. Some members of the board found it hard to understand her point of view – was it ‘political’ or a distinct religious value?

Keith Cassidy: The procedure of requiring pro-lifers at UBC to post bond with the university seems the wrong way to go.

Bill Fisher: Recalled that an argument used against Philippe Rushton at UWO was that ‘fascists have no right to speak.’ But this argument is not used against students who may be real fascists.

Clive Seligman: Does Lowy think that Netanyahu could be invited again next September?

Lowy: Not yet. Well, it is still possible that the conflict could start up again. However, there has been a fair amount of progress at Concordia in this matter.