Having finished two enriching years of doctoral studies at Ryerson University, today I am ashamed of my school. Why? Because on Monday, June 19, Ryerson will confer an honourary doctorate — the school’s highest award — upon Margaret Somerville, a professor of ethics and law at McGill University.
In addition to being an internationally-recognized academic, as well as a prolific author, Professor Somerville is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. She has written that “marriage is primarily about giving each child both a mother and a father,” and espouses the supremacy of biological parenting over other forms of the family. She has questioned the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.
Since learning of the plans for Monday’s commencement, many of my fellow students and I have wondered, “Of all the people that our school could have chosen to commemorate, why would it select a person whose views clash with the university’s core values?”
Ryerson depicts itself as a socially progressive learning environment. Its students, faculty and staff represent a wonderfully diverse range of human experience; many of its high-profile public supporters are also strong advocates of homosexual rights. This is all part of what makes Ryerson such an exciting place in which to learn and teach. Indeed, on the university’s website, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy boasts that the campus is located “downtown in the city where great things happen.”
Unfortunately, in his refusal to retract Ryerson’s invitation to Professor Somerville, President Levy seems to have forgotten that the reason that great things happen in Toronto is precisely because the citizens of this city have waged a broad-based, sustained fight for social justice. With respect to same-sex marriage and biological parenting, the views of Professor Somerville are anathema to the fundamental ideals that make our city, and our university, places for citizens and students to flourish.
Defending the university’s decision to confer honour upon Professor Somerville, President Levy has written that “Ryerson is an open and tolerant community that celebrates diversity in all forms. The university completely supports equality and the legal rights of individuals to live free of discrimination.”
This characterization of Ryerson’s principles aligns itself with the values of most Canadians; but it is incompatible with Professor Somerville’s approach to the Canadian family. Ryerson cannot simultaneously celebrate “diversity in all its forms” and extol the work of someone who would actively limit the rights of some members of society.
In the 2003 Supreme Court reference on the question of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, the top court confirmed that same-sex marriage is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and noted that “The promotion of Charter rights and values enriches our society as a whole.” Bearing in mind this ultimate interpretation, the question now becomes: How could Ryerson confer its highest honour upon someone who spends her days lobbying against Charter rights?
No doubt, some will say, “But what about academic freedom? We mustn’t interfere with Professor Somerville’s right to voice her research, no matter how controversial its content!” This argument may be an effective way of needlessly complicating the issue at hand; regrettably, with respect to reaction against Ryerson’s celebration of Professor Somerville, it wholly misses the point.
To be clear: No one is suggesting that Professor Somerville’s work is unfit for print. Although the word “censorship” packs a powerful rhetorical punch, this is not a question of censorship. Indeed, Professor Somerville’s research interests include inherently complex questions, and there are places where her controversial views deserve public airing. Yes, collegial criticism and vigourous debate are the cornerstones of robust academic life.
Rather, the problem that we see before us is this: awarding an honourary degree at Monday’s commencement is the wrong way, and the wrong place, to deal with Professor Somerville’s work. Remember, this is work that contradicts Ryerson’s own policies on human rights — not to mention the opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Of course I would not want to see Professor Somerville’s research censored. Nevertheless, I am offended by my school’s decision to place its highest mark of distinction upon a person who advocates a politics of discrimination.
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