On March 7, 2011, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff released a statement condemning Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). In response, Queen's University Rector, Nick Day, published a statement on rabble.ca criticizing Igniateff for his hypocritical stance on IAW. This sparked a flurry of criticism against Rector Day and calls for his resignation.
Following Day's publication, partisan groups including the Campus Conservatives, Queen's Liberal Association and Israel on Campus launched a political attack campaign, Reclaim Your Voice, targeting the Rector. Reclaim Your Voice organizers immediately started to gather signatures from Alma Matter Society (AMS) members, the undergraduate student society, to initiate a referendum question to unseat the Rector. The main charge against Day was that he misused his position by signing his letter as Rector of Queen's University.
This was a thinly veiled attack on the legitimacy of IAW and the right of university officers to publicly support this important annual event. Queen's Principal Daniel Woolf weighed in on the debate soon after by issuing a statement on his blog, declaring Day's letter "inappropriate." After the Principal's office received letters from students, faculty, and alumni condemning this interference, the Principal retracted his initial statement and reissued a less provocative response.
Various faculty members, students and staff mobilized around the banner of academic freedom, and criticized Woolf's comments for being incongruent with the university's aim to "develop leaders and citizens for a global society." The Principal's remarks as well as those of leading organizers with Reclaim Your Voice provided a stark reminder that scholarly work is acceptable only if it fits a particular political agenda. IAW organizers and the event itself have faced condemnation by federal and provincial politicians over the past two years -- an appalling reminder of the neo-McCarthyist agenda facing Canadian university campuses.
Members of Academic Freedom Queen's, a ratified campus club, launched a petition to defend and protect academic freedom at Queen's university. After being circulated through national academic and activist networks, the petition acquired over 1,500 signatures, lending support to a cause working in the interest of freedom of political expression.
Despite the questionable practices used by Reclaim Your Voice, such as falsely accusing Day of being anti-Semitic, attacking students and faculty on social media sites and other greivances still under investigation, the opponents of IAW and academic freedom moved forward. On March 22-23, the undergraduate population went to referendum. Of the 27 per cent of the members that voted, 72 per cent requested the recommendation to University Council for the removal of Nick Day.
On March 22, the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS), the governing body for graduate and professional students, debated the issue at its annual general meeting. At this meeting the graduate student population voted against a letter condemning the Rector. Members voted strongly in favour of a motion for the SGPS Council to sign the academic freedom petition. This was seen as a win for Academic Freedom Queen's.
As a student who has spent upwards of 10 years in the Ontario university system, I am deeply troubled by the accusations made against IAW organizers, speakers and events. Each year, IAW events at Queen's are attended by scholars, students and community members. The events are intelligent, politically charged and respectful to all present. At no time were violent remarks of anti-Semitism or any other derogatory rhetoric displayed.
In order to achieve "global citizenship" it is imperative that students and scholars continue to engage in critical research that confronts difficult academic and political questions. In the context of recent debates at Queen's, this includes understanding the practice of apartheid, as defined by the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court and the United Nations. Discussions surrounding ongoing systemic racism and violence against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government are part and parcel of a university's commitment to academic debate and discussion.
Nick Day's position is still in jeopardy and his potential removal will be discussed on May 7 by the governing bodies of Queen's University. We welcome all supporters of critical discourse and academic freedom to tell Principal Woolf what you think. Send him an email at [email protected]. CC [email protected] and your letter of support will be added to our website.
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