Principles guiding McGill’s response to encampment

Editorial by McGill President and Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini
McGill President Deep Saini 

The human suffering in the Middle East has brought enormous pain to people worldwide, including at McGill University. Especially for members of our community who have personal ties to the region, it has been a time of grief, anger and anxiety.

Diverse, often opposing viewpoints, have given rise to fierce debates. People within and outside academic communities have gathered at universities to amplify their views.

To educate, to learn, to research, universities must welcome debate and challenge convention. And that is precisely why protests must be roundly protected, regardless of the cause they support. But what we are seeing on many campuses goes beyond protest.

Since April 27, McGill’s downtown campus has been the site of a growing pro-Palestinian encampment occupied by hundreds of mostly masked persons who say they will not leave until the university cuts ties with Israel.

Through discussions in good faith with the encampment participants, we have tried to reach a mutual understanding, including by offering to:

  • Examine divestment, in ways that are geographically neutral and align with our values, from companies whose revenues largely come from weapons, using our established policies and within an accelerated timeline.
  • Increase McGill’s links to scholars and institutions in Gaza and the West Bank, and provide urgent support to displaced students and scholars.
  • Where permitted, extend McGill’s transparency in our investment reporting to include equity holdings under $500,000.

Participants in encampments elsewhere have seen such offers as important steps and have reached agreements with university administrations. Yet at McGill, the occupants continue to eschew meaningful conversation.

The participants are asking, primarily, for divestment and severance from organizations – including academic ones – because of where they are situated. Doing so would compromise McGill’s mission and ability to create a healthy, safe environment.

Experience has taught us that maintaining a neutral institutional stance on geopolitical matters best supports – as a whole – our 50,000 members who hold varied political views, represent diverse identities, origins, and beliefs, and ardently espouse various causes. Students and academics are trained to interrogate and contest assumptions and authorities. An inclusive environment, open to diverse viewpoints and difficult conversations, is essential to advancing knowledge.

However, resorting to intimidatory tactics is antithetical to our values. What is happening at McGill isn’t a peaceful protest; it’s an unlawful occupation.

The space is barricaded, with participants refusing entry to those who do not pass their vetting, including fire inspectors or police. They blocked a building’s emergency exit, creating a hazard. Profanity-laced graffiti has repeatedly defaced our historic buildings.

The encampment has notably drawn counterprotests. Hundreds of individuals faced off on our campus a few weeks ago, separated by approximately100 police officers. Throughout, slogans are being chanted that – regardless of their intent or origin – have harmful impacts, causing some members of our university community to feel unwelcome and threatened.

We have been compelled to move our spring convocation, depriving graduates of celebrating this milestone on our beautiful downtown campus, as they usually would.

Most recently, members of the university’s leadership and their families have been targeted at their homes by groups clearly linked to the encampment. This crosses the line into harassment and intimidation.

From the outset, we have collaborated with police and sought their help to end the occupation peacefully. While we continue working hard to maintain a climate where all members of our community feel safe, realizing this objective will require more co-ordinated action.

Ultimately, ending a decades-long conflict is beyond the mandate and means of any university. The encampments at McGill and other campuses throw into relief the tensions and divisions in Canadian society that have sharply escalated since Oct. 7. These are not just university problems. They are regional and national.

Universities require collaboration and courage from actors at all levels of government to work toward peaceful and effective solutions.