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January 25, 2001 Open letter from the Rector



A university is a forum for divergent views

During the past two days, considerable media attention has been devoted to the decision by Concordia University’s Senate to encourage departments and professors to be flexible, insofar as it is feasible, in making formal alternative arrangements for examinations for students who wish to attend the alternative (“People’s”) Summit scheduled to take place in Quebec City in conjunction with the Summit of the Americas Conference.

Why has the Concordia Senate, with the support of the university administration, taken this step? Does this imply that Concordia opposes the idea of a free trade area throughout the Americas? Is Concordia not thereby giving support to demonstrations that might be disruptive and an embarrassment to Quebec and Canada? The answer is no.

Why, then, facilitate the participation of even a small number of Concordia students who, because their examinations could by coincidence be scheduled on the weekend of the conference (yes, we do schedule exams also on weekends) would otherwise not be able to attend an event that could very possibly be disruptive?

I believe the answer touches on precisely what a university is all about. Academic freedom — the right to pursue knowledge and to challenge in a reasonable manner both popular and unpopular ideas — is not limited to professors. It also applies to students who, in addition to acquiring the information and the skills that prepare them for employment, have an opportunity at university to explore different points of view and experiment with ideas.

Those students who today oppose the dominant political and social perspectives of the majority of Canadians (including most of their fellow students and professors) may well be among society’s leaders tomorrow. At a time when many young people are uninterested in public affairs, do not bother to exercise their votes in elections, and focus exclusively on their own personal interests, universities have a responsibility to assist their students to become engaged, critical participants in the social process.

To be sure, along with the freedom to explore ideas, including dissent from the views of the majority, comes the obligation to act responsibly. Freedom of speech and of public assembly — which students claim for themselves — must extend to those who disagree with them. And students must learn to be tolerant and respectful of differences.

The best way to accomplish this in a university is to permit the clash of ideas, to promote rational persuasion as a means of advancing one’s position, and to facilitate constructive engagement in the important events of the day.

This is not without risk. We recognize that those who intend to advocate peacefully in support of a cause can be swept up in a disruptive demonstration. We recognize that Concordia University can be unfairly and inaccurately characterized as taking a political position when it has no intention of doing so. We believe these these risks are worth taking. As John Silber, long-time president of Boston University once wrote, “the university must be free to appear unreasonable to the public” in pursuing its objective of promoting the consideration of divergent ideas.

Frederick Lowy,
Rector and Vice-Chancellor