During the past month, Hillel of Greater Toronto and Hasbara at York, supported by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and CIJA (Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy), established a commission to identify trends affecting the quality of life for Jewish students at York, and to make practical recommendations for improvement.
UJA Federation, the primary funding, allocations, planning and community mobilization organization for Toronto’s Jewish community of 200,000, has a long-standing relationship with York University, as do a significant number of UJA’s 21,000 donors. The commitment of UJA Federation and its commission partners to the wellbeing of York University is historic and unequivocal, as reflected in this report.
In order to prepare this report, our commission requested and received many submissions and hundreds of recommendations from students, faculty, and Jewish community members. These recommendations have been reviewed and refined for presentation to and consideration by the York University Task Force on Student Life, Learning and Community.
Over the past year, our community watched with concern, and sometimes with alarm, as several incidents adversely affected the quality of life for Jewish students on campus (please see Appendix 1). Episodes of intimidation, harassment, ridicule and virulent anti-Israel sentiment demonstrably diminished the campus environment for all students. The York campus has become the focal point for opposing views on a single global dispute, and this overriding campus focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict threatens to undermine the educational excellence of the University.
This past year at York does not represent a new, nor isolated phenomenon. York has been plagued for many years by vehement anti-Israel expression (please see Appendix 2) on campus and attempts to shout down or suppress speakers hosted by Jewish campus groups, although recent incidents have surpassed any prior occurrences by a considerable measure.
On May 22, Janet Mosher, the adjudicator investigating complaints related to a disturbing February 11 incident at the Hillel lounge, found that Krisna Saravanamuttu, the incoming president of the York Federation of Students and another student, Jesse Zimmerman, promoted an atmosphere of “hostility, incivility and intimidation” (please see Appendix 3). On April 21, an unauthorized campus newspaper, the YU Free Press, containing cartoons comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis, was distributed to York University students on Holocaust Remembrance Day (please see Appendix 4). On March 31 last year, former Israeli cabinet minister and human rights advocate Natan Sharansky was continuously interrupted by anti-Israel agitators as he attempted to address students. In 2003, the University, under pressure from the Middle East Students Association, initially banned Professor Daniel Pipes from speaking on campus, before reversing its decision and permitting him to deliver a lecture in a partitioned section of the basketball court, under heavy security, paid for by the Jewish community.
Events at York University have left many members of our community shocked and shaken and our community leaders have frequently expressed their concerns to the highest levels of the University administration.
We strongly believe a University campus should be a place where open, honest and balanced debates occur and where a wide range of opinions are expressed within a safe, non-confrontational environment based on mutual respect and a commitment to civil discourse. The organizations represented by our commission strongly support freedom of expression, consistent with the University Code of Conduct and academic standards. However, several incidents that have occurred at York are unbecoming of a well-regarded institution of higher learning and intolerable in a campus setting.
The time for change has come. The opportunity to help York restore safety, peace and mutual consideration is upon us. With that in mind, and with a view to assisting the Task Force in its work, we offer the recommendations below.
In developing these recommendations, we paid careful attention to the initiatives taken by other North American universities that demonstrated determination to ensure an atmosphere of respectful, civil debate; an atmosphere that maintained their academic commitment to deal with controversial issues but in a manner that sought to preclude the possibility of defamation against individuals or groups of individuals.
Montreal’s Concordia University, where tensions were similar to those at York, blocked access to the central space on campus for political demonstrations and exhibitions (please see Appendix 5). Pennsylvania State University established ‘free speech zones’ for speakers, displays and literature distribution. California Polytechnic University has regulated allowable space for signs, posters, flyers and banners. Concordia, McMaster University, and Texas A&M specifically defined harassment within their codes of conduct, and at Stanford University, the Code of Conduct is violated when shouts, interruptions or chants prevent others from hearing a scheduled speaker.
Use of University Space
Although York University serves an important public function, its property is private. York, like the universities cited above and many others, is entitled to set reasonable limits on those who use its campus and services, in order to preserve the appropriate academic atmosphere. The following recommendations are based on the necessity of York regulating its use of space in a more rigorous and systematic way.
• The University should not allow Vari Hall to be booked by student groups for political purposes. Vari Hall is the public face of the University. It is a meeting ground, gathering place, lecture hall and the gateway to virtually all campus activities. This space must remain neutral ground for the benefit of all students. Just as political expression is guaranteed, so should the rights of students who seek only to acquire an education, without involvement in political protest.
• The University should put an immediate end to the unauthorized use of Vari Hall and strongly sanction those responsible for any such unauthorized use.
• The University should, instead, identify alternative spaces for political expression and establish a set of rules, consistent with the Code of Conduct, to regulate the use of such space e.g. advance, approved booking.
• The University should prohibit signs and statements that do not contribute to an atmosphere of respectful dialogue and civil discourse.
• York should provide its security services and Toronto Police with the requisite authority to remove trespassers immediately from campus who are, or threaten to become, disruptive.
Code of Conduct:
Detailed, well defined and well publicized student codes of conduct permit universities to maintain both their academic missions and a secure environment, free from intimidation (please see Appendix 6). We believe, for the most part, York’s Student Code of Conduct and existing regulations are sufficiently thorough to fulfill their objectives, but more rigorous and consistent enforcement is required.
• Our commission recommends more timely and determined enforcement of both the University Code of Conduct and existing regulations, including suspension and expulsion, when warranted, as one of the most significant steps toward setting a new, respectful tone and a safer environment on campus.
• The University administration and York Security Services need to become more proactive and aggressive in dealing with violations of policies, by amending the Code of Conduct to permit the initiation of complaints by authorized University personnel rather than waiting for students to register complaints, as is the case at Concordia University.
• The University should take steps to ensure that Code of Conduct complaints are dealt with more expeditiously than is currently the case.
• The University should increase the severity of sanctions for those who repeatedly violate the Code of Conduct.
• The University should ensure that all students sign the Code of Conduct prior to registration and that copies of the Code are displayed in prominent campus locations and on the internet.
• The University should take swift and forceful action against those who make racist statements and statements that demean or delegitimize identifiable groups.
• The University should provide a more detailed definition of ‘harassment’ in the Code of Conduct section dealing with ‘disruptive and/or harassing behaviour in academic situations.’ The University should also include and define ‘intimidation’ within the same section.
The Commission believes that York University should authorize its security services to play an even greater role in ensuring the safety and security of students on campus, and has confidence in the capacity of York Security to do so. We believe enhanced authority for York Security is essential for a more secure campus atmosphere, as is evident in the following recommendations:
• York Security should be directed to take any action within its legal authority to deal with disruptive individuals.
• York Security should be encouraged to issue Trespass Notices under the Trespass to Property Act to disruptive trespassers.
• The University should provide its Security Services with enhanced training in order to deal more effectively with disruptive events and individuals.
• The University should direct its Security Services to prevent protestors from interrupting speeches or lectures and impeding pedestrian traffic.
• York Security should be empowered to issue ‘Academic Offence’ tickets to students found in violation of the Student Code of Conduct or other University regulations. The Code of Conduct should be amended to explicitly permit the issuance of such tickets along with meaningful financial penalties. These tickets would be treated in the same manner as parking or library fines. Failure to pay them would result in an ‘ineligible to graduate’ status.
• The University should also empower York Security to issue reprimands, under appropriate circumstances, that would remain on a student’s academic transcript for a period of not less than two years.
The Commission believes strongly in freedom of expression at York, as long as such public expression is lawful, respectful, civil, and free from inflammatory rhetoric and the defamation of individuals or identifiable groups. The following recommendations are designed to prevent future incidents involving rhetoric that violates these norms:
• Senior administration officials must be prepared to consistently speak out against inappropriate public expression. The President, and all senior officers of the University, must actively encourage civility and honest, open and balanced debate within an atmosphere of respect.
• Publications produced by unauthorized campus groups should not be displayed or distributed on campus.
• The University should ensure that content of authorized publications is free from defamatory material and makes a positive contribution to an atmosphere of respectful dialogue and civil discourse.
• The University, through the management of student levy dollars, should ensure that the York Federation of Students promotes the same atmosphere.
• The University should rigorously define the academic standards expected of all University-sponsored conferences, insist on peer review for all conference speakers, and deny its endorsement to any conference that violate these academic standards.
Dialogue among those with Opposing Views:
Civil discourse cannot take place without a commitment to dialogue, and true dialogue is illusory when hostility and invective are commonplace. We suggest the following initiatives to encourage genuine dialogue.
• The University should play a leadership role in fostering partnerships and dialogue among groups with opposing views on campus.
• The University should designate an individual to champion bridge building between opposing groups on campus and to facilitate respectful relationships. York should also designate appropriate funding for this initiative.
• The University should review written commitments to respectful relationships on other University campuses by groups with opposing views. In this regard, elements of the ‘McMaster Peace Initiative’ could be considered (please see Appendix 7).
Abuse of the Lecture Podium:
One of the most frequently articulated student concerns in submissions to our commission surrounded ‘misappropriation of the podium’ – remarks reflecting a faculty member’s personal point of view on issues unrelated or marginally related to the course at hand, or personal opinions based on incorrect facts. What takes place inside the classroom is far less visible than events within the University’s public spaces, but no less damaging to the University’s character. In addition, many students are reluctant to report such abuse or they are unaware of procedures to do so. The following recommendations will, we believe, strongly and effectively address this issue.
• President Shoukri should issue a strong statement, instructing faculty members and teaching assistants (‘teachers’) not to abuse or misuse the classroom by turning it into a forum for the expression of personal political views unrelated to the subject of the course. While it is the role of a teacher to encourage critical thinking, it is not his or her role to require explicit or implicit adherence to any particular political ideology.
• The University should establish and promote a mandatory training program for all teachers on ‘abuse of the podium’.
• The University should develop, and publicize as widely as possible, a clear and efficient complaints mechanism for students who reasonably believe their teachers have appropriated the classroom in order to advance a particular political agenda.
• The University should establish a confidential hotline for students to report ‘abuse of podium’ incidents.
• The University should ensure that students who initiate such complaints against teachers are protected from retribution or punishment.
All of the recommendations in this report are based on an honest assessment of the challenges facing not just Jewish students but all those who attend York University. Yet, our suggested solutions also reflect our deep commitment to the University and our acknowledgement of its outstanding accomplishments. We submit these recommendations with confidence that York can and will reinvigorate its reputation, renew its dedication to a respectful, civil campus society and play an even greater role in fostering scholarship, nurturing innovation and enhancing Canadian life.
Respectfully submitted by
Elyse Lackie (chair)
Howard English – UJA Federation of Greater Toronto
Jay Solomon - CIJA