October 12, 2004
Dear Dr. Lowy:
I am writing to you on behalf of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship to express our concern regarding the way an invitation to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel to speak to the Concordia University community has been handled.
As we understand it from several newspaper accounts, the local Hillel chapter was denied by your administration the opportunity to invite Mr. Barak to speak on campus. Based solely on that piece of information various charges have been levelled at Concordia including: attempting to bar Mr. Barak from speaking at Concordia; caving in to a small group of students who threatened (or might threaten) to disrupt or prevent the speech; and of violating free speech and academic freedom at Concordia.
We also understand from your public statement that your administration concluded that the safety of those wanting to attend the presentation could not be guaranteed at a campus venue. In your public statement you explained that Concordia is willing to co-sponsor Mr. Barak at an off-campus site that could be better protected, such as Place des Arts or a hotel.
Unfortunately, the dominant issue seems to have become whether Mr. Barak would be allowed to speak on campus or forced to give his speech at an off-campus venue. If Mr. Barak had been invited, accepted the invitation, and a date for the talk arranged, then we suspect the ultimate location for the talk, even if off-campus, might not have evolved into an important issue. Regrettably the site of the speech has now become a legitimate concern for academic freedom.
The academic freedom issue is that Concordia University has appeared to have lost control of its campus, and that radical elements within (and perhaps outside of) its jurisdiction seem to be dictating who may be invited to campus to speak and in what venue. This perception, which we hope is not borne out in fact, suggests that normal academic judgement and criteria were not applied with regard to Mr. Barak's invitation. Ultimately, if such a perception persists, Concordia University will lose credibility as an institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through a disinterested search for truth. Indeed, at this time it may be very difficult to combat the emerging image of Concordia University as a place that does not protect academic freedom. It is in Concordia University’s interest, as well as our democracy’s, that the integrity of the Academy is rigorously maintained.
Accordingly, we call upon Concordia University to take positive action to declare its control over academic matters and immediately invite Prime Minister Barak to speak on campus at Concordia. The university should not wait to find a co-sponsor. Instead, Concordia should sponsor this talk through one of its own existent academic speaker programs. If Mr. Barak accepts the invitation and an acceptable date is arranged, then your administration, in consultation with your own security police, the Montreal Police Department, the RCMP, and Mr. Barak’s security team should take a fresh look at the security of venues. If the only satisfactory venue at the end of that review proves to be off-campus, then so be it. The important point is that safety issues must be seen to be judged on their own merit and not as smokescreens that undermine academic freedom.
Finally, I note that Harvey Shulman, a member of our Board of Directors, is also a member of the faculty at Concordia. Accordingly, he did not play any role in the writing of this letter.
Clive Seligman, President
cc: Mr. Alain Benedetti, Chair, Board of Governors, Mr. Michael Di Grappa, Vice-President (Services)