By Heather Munroe-Blum
Helen Keller once said, “The highest result of education is tolerance.” As an institution of highest learning, McGill University stands steadfastly for tolerance, understanding, diversity and community engagement, and resolutely against any promotion of hatred, racism or intolerance. McGill also moves quickly to protect its community when threats, or potential threats, to the safety of individuals or the institution are discovered.
At such moments, McGill Security takes action; police are contacted; a threat-assessment team is immediately mobilized; and other measures are taken, all to quickly determine the University’s level of response.
It is now alarmingly easy for any individual to communicate hateful, threatening or racist messages to the entire world without effort – no matter whether the intention is deadly serious, or the venting of disturbed emotions with no intent to act on them. While the vast majority of us use technology responsibly in communicating, there are those who abuse technology to express themselves in unacceptable ways. A recent incident of irresponsible Internet use at McGill (in this case, the sending of threatening and disturbing Twitter messages) has understandably engendered some fear and concern in the McGill community, and has prompted calls for both harsh action against the individual responsible, and for more timely warning to the community in such circumstances.
I would like to address those concerns. Quebec’s privacy law prevents me from describing the University’s actions with an individual student, but the procedures followed by McGill authorities in this circumstance, as they would under any such circumstance, reflected a practiced protocol that involves informing Montreal police the instant a threat is perceived, and assisting police with their investigation in every way possible. All of this occurred in relation to the recent incident.
At any hint of risk, taking into account the results of the police investigation and the response of the criminal justice system, McGill’s threat-assessment team and disciplinary officials advise a course of action. If a threat of danger is judged to be serious, a student can be excluded from campus even prior to a hearing, and warnings to individuals, groups or the entire community are issued immediately. There is nothing that we take more seriously at McGill than the safety of our community.
We understand that we live and work in a city where sister institutions have, tragically, experienced campus violence. Thus we are ever mindful of the very real risks that can exist within university campuses and beyond their gates.
While I am often impressed by the civility, sensitivity and compassion that generally characterizes the actions of members of our McGill community, in recent years I have become increasingly concerned by the general societal escalation of rhetorical excess, the distortions in political arguments, and the harsh tenor of discourse, intended apparently, to demonize and destroy. Universities can provide a model for the management of disagreements and the sharing of differences via the language of academic and intellectual exchange and informed and civil debate. I urge us all, as citizens of a great centre of learning and discovery, to resist accusatory and uncivil impulses, to say No to demonization and hate. Let each of us redouble our efforts to listen carefully to others and to share our dissenting views respectfully and thoughtfully.
Universities are privileged places. We are a crossroads of ideas and knowledge. A university exposes each of us to alternative viewpoints and interpretations of social and political events. Along with our special privileges come special responsibilities, as members of a learning community, to listen to our fellows with respect, to connect with those who may be different or hold different views, to employ empathy and understanding, as well as rebuttal. Failing to do so would be to fail in achieving the greatest benefit of higher education – the civilizing influence of knowledge.
McGill at all times works actively to keep our campuses and our community members safe. And each one of us can contribute to the security and well being of our community by engaging with each other in thoughtful, and responsible ways. McGill is generally known for the positive quality of our community and a healthy community depends on the good will and positive engagement of each one of us.
Heather Munroe-Blum is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University