Almost 300 students, staff and alumni of Carleton University are calling on the administration of the school to withdraw its report on campus intercultural relations.
An open letter which has amassed more than 800 signatures, 300 from Carleton University, says Carleton’s report on Inter-Cultural, Inter-Religious and Inter-Racial Relations is the result of “biased investigations” and attempts to suppress free speech on the university campus.
The report, which was released in August, focuses on the experience of Jewish and Aboriginal students at Carleton. The report said Jewish and Aboriginal students were “less positive regarding the climate of respect at Carleton,” and further, that it was clear “Jewish students felt the greatest amount of discomfort.”
However, a statement made by Elizabeth Whyte, a student member of the report’s commission, says the Commission’s decision to focus on Jewish and Aboriginal students and faculty members was not an “neutral analysis” of the survey undertaken by the commission in 2010.
“There is a diverse range of students who expressed [in the survey] the need for greater respect and improved services on this campus. The decision to focus on any particular groups was therefore an explicit selection,” Whyte said.
The report itself highlighted that Muslim students and staff responded similarly to Aboriginal and Jewish respondents to questions about intercultural relations on campus, however no further study of issues relating to Muslims was undertaken in the body of the report.
The survey data showed that the small number of West Asian students and staff who responded rated the “climate of respect” on campus the lowest. 33 percent reported being treated disrespectfully based on race, religion or culture. That data wasn’t included in the final report.
Zane Colt, former president of Hillel Ottawa – a prominent Jewish group in the city – who helped the commission with the report, said that commission focused on students who, “in the largest groups, expressed the biggest amounts of concern – Jewish, Aboriginal and Muslim students in that order.”
The report stated that while the commission recognized the “many other religions, racialized and culturally distinct groups on campus,” the survey did not “capture specific concerns” of those groups, and none of them asked to appear before the commission.
“While the Commission felt bound by the survey results and the witnesses it heard, It recognized and continues to recognize the importance of all concerns and would hope that they would be included in future considerations of inter-cultural, inter-religious and inter-racial relations on campus,” the report states.
Colt added that students from other groups can still voice their concerns campus, through organizations like Carleton’s Equity Services or the student’s association.
Trevor Purvis, an associate professor of Law who helped write the Open Letter to the University, is fearful of the effect that the recommendations of the report will have to freedom of discussion at Carleton.
The report recommends the creation of a “clear mechanism for students who wish to raise concerns about academic integrity.” Purvis is afraid those recommendations might lead to a system where professors and staff are being “monitored.”
“If we say something someone doesn’t agree with, or doesn’t like to hear, they can initiate an investigation,” Purvis says. “Disciplinary results will [likely] come out of that.”
Purvis says that threat sends a “sweeping chill across campus.”
The problems raised by the report were the lack of recognition on campus of “separate and distinct” Aboriginal identities and “physical and verbal harassment, including anti-Semitic comments” of Jewish students and staff.
But Whyte says that the definitions of anti-Semitism given in the report are conflicting. She states in her letter that she recalls a meeting wherein anti-Semitism was defined as the assumption all Jewish people were supportive or associated with Israel.
Yet the findings of the commission say the university “must acknowledge” that some anti-Israel speech and activity on campus is perceived as anti-Semitic. Whyte says she feels that the report made the “exact conflation that was earlier deemed to be a form of anti-Semitism.”
Purvis agrees that the definitions of anti-Semitism laid out in the report are troublesome.
“It’s really difficult to figure out what one could say about Israel without the allegation that one is being anti-Semitic,” Purvis said. “The university has shown itself to be willing to take a pretty strong stance against voices that they don’t like to hear.”
“We’re not in the business of education to make people happy. We’re in the business to make people think, and create an environment in which people can freely engage in open and penetrating discussion on the most difficult issues,” Purvis said, adding that he thinks this report is trying to end that discussion.
Carleton University President Roseann Runte told campus newspaper The Charlatan that she will not be responding to the open letter.
On Wednesday, Carleton’s department of Sociology and Anthropology held a panel discussion concerning the report. There, panelists said that the report missed its goal of being inclusive, and has instead increased exclusiveness and polarization on campus.
“It’s not good anti-racist politics to set racialized groups against each other,” said Amy Bartholomew, an associate professor of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton.
Colt, now city-wide president of the Israeli Awareness Committee, says that sometimes discussion at Carleton crosses boundaries.
“There is grounds for legitimate criticism of Israel, by all means – It is a western democracy and you can criticize Israel as much as you like, just as you do Canada, the US, Europe,” Colt says. But he adds that often Jewish students are perceived to be supportive of Israel when they may not be, and brought into discussions that they don’t want to have.
Colt says that Jewish students may feel threatened in classrooms where one-sided arguments about Israel are taking place. He says that when Zionism, the support for the existence of a Jewish state in the middle east – which Colt describes as a religious belief – is being discussed by students in class, Jewish students feel uncomfortable.
In classes or discussion groups, Colt says that students may feel their marks are threatened because they are afraid to voice their opinions. Many classes at Carleton have a portion of their final grade based on the student’s participation.
He called the called the report “fantastic” in it’s efforts to address concerns of Jewish students and staff on campus.
“For [Carleton University President Roseann Runte] to recognize that there is an issue on campus, and to command an inquiry looking into what extent and who the issue effects is unheard of and a fantastic endeavor. I hope the recommendations are implemented and that we see a more tolerant campus in the future.”
Carleton University’s policies with regard to Israel have been criticized by many groups, notably by the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) group on campus. Others have said that the environment created by Anti-Israeli sentiment on campus marginalizes Jewish people.
In 2009, Carleton University banned posters for Israeli Apartheid Week that were posted on campus when the school’s equity services office decided the posters were in violation of Carleton’s Human Rights Code.
After that decision was made, Feridun Hamdullahpur, who was then the Provost of Carleton University released a statement saying “intolerance which takes the form of inappropriately challenging or questioning a person’s race or beliefs are actions that are contrary to the mission of Carleton University”
Hamdullaphur said that as a result of breaching Carleton’s Human Rights Policy, students could be “withdrawn from their studies indefinitely.”
This story has been corrected. JHR would like to apologize to Human Rights professors. We clarify that a previous version of the story did not mean to accuse professors of grading based on a student’s political or religious beliefs.