Principled Protection of University Autonomy Through Punishment Versus Concordia University's Cowardly Concerns Over Safety and Culture-of-comfort Complaints

January 2005

When faced with those who wish to disrupt academic freedom through violent means, a university that values its autonomy should use those disincentives and punishments that are available to it.

In this connection, there is a scene near the end of Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions that senior university administrators might consider. It is 1945, and an American infantry company has recently liberated a Nazi concentration camp holding Jewish and other European prisoners. The senior rabbi approaches the company’s commander, Captain Green, and starts to request that a public religious service (the first) be held to remember the dead. An Albanian inmate and former diplomat interrupts, and says to Green:

“If you allow this gentleman to hold his services, I do not guarantee the consequences. I feel I must warn you. There will be riots, bloodshed. The other prisoners will not stand for it…”

“The other prisoners will not stand for it,” Green repeated quietly without any tone in his voice.

“No, Sir,” said the Albanian briskly, “I guarantee the other prisoners will not stand for it.”

The first part of Green’s answer is to the rabbi:

“I am going to guarantee something myself. I am going to guarantee that you will hold your services in one hour in the square down there. I am also going to guarantee that there will be machine guns set up on the roof of this building. And I will further guarantee that anyone who attempts to interfere with your services will be fired on by those machine guns.”

Green then adds to the Albanian diplomat: “And, finally I guarantee, that if you ever try to come into this room [Green’s office] again, you will be locked up. That is all.”

I am not suggesting that universities gun down demonstrators, or even threaten to do so. Still, following the riot that occurred when Netanyahu had been invited to speak on campus in October 2002, Concordia University could have leveled severe academic penalties (e.g., expulsion, firing) on identified student and faculty perpetrators of what were demonstrably criminal acts. And it could have insisted on pressing criminal charges against those rioters who were not members of its academic community. Instead, the Concordia administration dealt very mildly with a few of the student perpetrators, and pressed no charges against non-student, non-faculty perpetrators. Nor did it offer to re-invite Israel’s then prime minister under conditions where police protection was provided and intending perpetrators of violence were threatened with all the punishments available to the university.

Concordia’s administration is not alone among Canadian universities in adopting this culture-of-comfort policy of giving in to pressures that subvert the university as an institution where contradictory and controversial opinions are discussed. As I have detailed over a decade ago (“Black Thursday, Academic Freedom, and the Comfort Criterion in Canadian Universities: The UNB and McGill Cases”, SAFS Newsletter, 1993, 5), McGill’s administration and its department of psychiatry failed to re-schedule a lecture on the false-memory syndrome that was offensive” or uncomfortable to some ideological feminists who succeeded in disrupting the lecture.

The latest public position of Concordia’s admi-nistration on the Barak invitation has been to argue that “safety” concerns were prevalent, and that it took the advice of a committee in charge of safety in withdrawing the invitation to Barak to speak on the university’s campus, but it did offer to schedule the talk in an off-campus locale.

There have been those who have argued that whether a talk occurs on campus or off campus does not constitute a significant difference in terms of a university’s commitment to freedom of speech. They hold that the pro-Israel groups who went public and broke off negotiations on the basis of the place of the speech rather than its content were interested in scoring a political, rhetorical victory, rather than in defending free speech. This, essentially, was the position taken by the Concordia administration in replying to SAFS [whose official statement urged Concordia to immediately re-invite Barak, but implicitly recognized some merit in Concordia’s “safety” concerns and did not insist on Concordia’s obligation to hold the talk on its campus ( or see SAFS letter to President Lowy, this issue, p. 6.

Despite these complications, the fact remains that between the Netanyahu and Barak episodes, there have been a number of on-campus talks by controversial speakers who are not perceived as being pro-Israel. This differential treatment constitutes prejudice (here, that of anti-Semitism) even if of a relatively moderate form. It is akin to those legislators (“administrators” of broader society) in the southern United States who used to favor letting blacks on the bus, provided that they sat in the back of the bus. And, to refer to the Shaw scene I cited at the outset, it is as if the Concordia administrators would have preferred Captain Green to take the Albanian’s advice on “safety” grounds, and thereby to avoid the diplomat’s predicted riots and bloodshed.

More recently, B’Nai Brith went to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, charging the Concordia administration with creating an “uncomfortable” climate on campus for its Jewish students. Soon after this event (which, of course, opened the possibility of legal charges against the administration), the Concordia administration announced that it had, after all, found a “safe” place for Barak to speak on campus in 2005, and re-issued an invitation to him.

In my view, this further confirms that the Concordia administration responds to culture-of-comfort consi-derations and legal threats, rather than to the sort of appeal to principle that SAFS had issued immediately after the Barak affair had been made public. And while the B’Nai Birth actions may have been admired by some pro-Israel pressure groups, I am not among the admirers, even though, as a holocaust survivor and a fan of open societies, I am a strong supporter of the democratic state of Israel.

My personal opinions, however, are of little consequence. What I am concerned about, as a member of the academic community which should defend the principles of academic freedom for both faculty and students, is that the university, as an institution, should not bar the expression of any opinion on the grounds that it offends a group of people who threaten to perpetrate violent acts, rather than offering arguments to refute that opinion. Appealing to Human Rights Commissions on the grounds Jewish or any other students feel uncomfortable in the face of opinions they dislike simply reinforces the velvet-totalitarian (see, e.g., “Velvet totalitarianism on Canadian campuses”, Canadian Psychology, 1997, 38, 204-211, and 255 –256), culture-of-comfort assumptions that many Canadian campuses have recently adopted.

There has been altogether too much yielding by Canadian campus administrators to this culture-of-comfort approach. Most administrations have created campus speech codes (that go beyond Canada’s hate-speech laws). Again, there is an ever-growing equity-officers bureaucracy that seeks to influence the curricula in terms of anti-academic considerations such as “inclusiveness”, “diversity”, and the “warming” of certain “chilly climates”. These actions are contrary to the basic epistemological principle that should underlie all higher education—that both faculty and students, i.e., the academic community, is devoted to the search for truth. And if, in the course of that search, doctrines are advanced that are clearly wrong, those doctrines should be censured through contrary arguments, rather than being censored on the basis of safety or comfort. Hence I would have been much more impressed by Concordia’s devotion to the principles of academic freedom had it immediately accepted SAFS’s advice to re-invite Barak, rather than wait until it was threatened by a political pressure group.

I think that, basically, the Concordia administration has shown, both in the prior Netanyahu case and the current Barak affair, that its behavior is driven less by a principled protection of university autonomy as espoused by organizations like SAFS, than by cowardly concerns over safety and culture-of-comfort complaints made by political pressure groups. By their deeds will they and Concordia’s administration be judged.