Monday, March 14, 2011

Supporting the powers that are - Queen's Rector vs Queen's Principal

This likely is a first for me, at least on this blog. I agree with the powers that are (avid readers of this blog will know that I tend to enjoy being a thorn in their side).

It's a story about Israel (you might be tempted to say 'spare me the details'). I came across it because of Facebook. Facebook friends contacted me and asked me to sign a petition supporting the Queen's University Rector against demands that he step down. There is a lot of talk about academic freedom in that petition, please read it yourself. Now, our Rector is an elected student representative.  He wrote in his capacity as Rector to the leader of the federal opposition, Mr Ignatieff, defending Israel Apartheid week against criticism of that event, uttered by the Liberal politician. Israel Apartheid Week likens the state of Israel to - you guessed it - apartheid South Africa. I won't tell you what I think about Israel Apartheid Week, because that is not what this blog entry is all about. You are welcome to agree or disagree with the main proposition of Israel Apartheid Week, and yet you should be able to agree with me regardless.

The Queen's Rector was called in to the University Principal's office. Principal Woolf essentially told the Rector, Nick Day, that it was inappropriate for Rector Day to use his title as Rector to make the statement that he made. After all, the student body of Queen's University has taken no stance on Israel Apartheid Week (let alone Mr Ignatieff's statement), and so Mr Day had no reason at all to pretend he was representing Queen's University's student body when he wrote to Mr Ignatieff. Woolf here is showing himself to be way more sophisticated than his predecessor who did not hesitate to declare a few years ago that Queen's University would never support academic boycotts of Israel for reasons of academic freedom and whatnot, when (of course) Queen's University's governing bodies had taken no stance on this matter. Woolf, on his blog, makes quite rightly clear, that one could hold legitimately differing views on Israel Apartheid Week. At issue is that Mr Day chose to use his Rector moniker to impress Mr Ignatieff, instead of writing to Mr Ignatieff as Mr Day.

If the relevant student governing bodies at Queen's had taken a stance on Israel Apartheid week then Mr Day would have been entitled to write to Mr Ignatieff, especially if these bodies had tasked him to do so.

What's a bit puzzling is said petition claiming 'academic freedom' for the undergraduate student Rector. This strikes me as a rather bizarre complaint. Mr Day could have written to Mr Ignatieff and express his views as Mr Day (even as Mr Day, undergraduate student at Queen's University). Nothing would have stopped him. Asking that he refrain from using his title as Rector when he is not entitled to speak as Rector is not an infringement of academic freedom (if we assume there is such a thing for undergraduate students). I wonder what the same petitioners would have said if Mr Day had chosen to write as Rector in support of the establishment of a 'Keep Asian students out of Queen's Week'? Academic freedom? Really? Nonsense.

The question remains whether Rector Day should remain Rector Day or whether he should resign and become Mr Day again. If past experience is precedent setting, one could argue that given that the past Queen's Principal who confused her personal views on academic boycotts with those of the University was not forced to resign (over this matter), perhaps the Rector should not be treated differently. At the end of the day, this is a political decision the students need to make. I have no strong views on this one way or another.


  1. Hi Udo!

    It's Marvin - I took your bioethics class last term! Im working with the "No" campaign on these referendums coming up and we made this website that addresses some of your comments.

    Have a nice day!

  2. Enjoyed this post a lot.

    I think Nick Day and the "No" campaign have failed to appreciate that Nick can't have his cake and eat it too. He can either be an individual with the right to say whatever he wants or he can be an elected official who is accountable for his actions. That doesn't mean the Rector has to be silent on issues, it just means the Rector (or any elected official) must be willing to face their constituents to account for these positions.

    For example, I'm a staunch Liberal and I oppose the Harper government because of their stated positions and because of what I perceive as lies they've told Canadians. Because of my beliefs of their words and ideologies I oppose their government and actively seek (along with many others) to remove them from office (in this case, by working to help Liberal candidates get elected). But by the standards that the "NO" campaign have set out, I'm violating the Harper regime's freedom of speech and expression.

    I think intuitively we know that this cannot be the case. There is a separation between freedom of speech and accountability of elected officials. I've posed this question to the "No" team and they have refused to answer it. The best they've offered is that the Rector is somehow a 'different' kind of elected official who doesn't need to be accountable for his or her actions. I don't buy that and I don't think Queen's students do either. I guess we'll all find out on Wednesday.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments Udo.

    This may already have been mentioned on the Support Academic Freedoms sit, but I thought I'd draw attention to it. You've said that if the student bodies at Queen's had already taken some kind of stand on IAW, then it would have been appropriate for Day to write his letter in his elected capacity. As the AGM on Tuesday reminded the membership, the Society of Graduate and Professional Students does have a successful motion on the books about supporting students, student groups, and academics who use 'apartheid' in this way. I've included it and the link below. I'd also add that Nick Day is an MA student and graduate and professional students elect him along with undergraduates.

    BIFRT the SGPS council supports, protects and upholds the freedom of speech and academic freedom of campus groups, students, activists, and academics at Queen’s University who use the term “Israeli apartheid” to describe the present conditions of legal, political, economic, and social segregation imposed on the occupied Palestinian territories and the Palestinian people by the Israeli state (


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