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The Senate and President Allan Rock on Freedom of Expression at the University of Ottawa, following the Ann Coulter affair

February 4, 2011

The string of communication below may be of interest to members of the University of Ottawa community concerned about Freedom of Expression and the quality of the educational environment at our university.

The e-mails deal with my request to have the Senate begin work on President Allan Rock’s proposal to initiate a university-wide process to create a statement of principles on Freedom of Expression following the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s on-campus speech in March 2010 (link).  As Mr. Rock expressed to me this week (e-mail of February 3), his position now is that the matter has been fully dealt with in a brief May 2010 motion (available here).

My position is that the work has still not been started.  Please see the correspondence below for more details.  I have included the media in Cc because of the importance to the community of the meaning of Freedom of Expression at the University of Ottawa.

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Date: February 4, 2011
Subject: Re: Motion for U of O Senate Re: Freedom of Expression, Ann Coulter affair

Dear President Allan Rock,

You made a commitment at the April 12, 2010 meeting of the Senate to initiate a broad community discussion on freedom of expression, following the controversy arising from your letter of March 2010 to American political commentator Ann Coulter.

In your words:

“As we look forward, one such alternative is for us to engage our university community in an open discussion of these matters to work toward a consensus of our shared expectations when it comes to Freedom of Expression, and how to communicate those expectations to people visiting our university … If we can agree that there is a collective view at the University of Ottawa about the principles and responsibilities that underlie free speech, we can, for example, explore the creation of a statement of principles that we can all adopt by consensus, and that might reflect what we believe.”

After eight months of inaction on this commitment, I motioned this week to bring the matter before the University of Ottawa Senate at the upcoming meeting on February 7.  On February 3, you responded (below) that it is your position now that the matter was closed and completed as of the May 2010 meeting.

Mr. Rock, the antithesis between your statements and your actions since then is remarkable:

  • When did you and the Senate “engage our university community in an open discussion of these matters”?
  • When and how did “we” “work toward a consensus of our shared expectations when it comes to Freedom of Expression”?
  • What did “we” decide about “how to communicate those expectations to people visiting our university”?
  • What are the “expectations”?
  • What progress has been made on our “statement of principles that we can all adopt by consensus”?

Your detailed proposal at Senate was accepted by consensus on April 12, 2010 (you have explained the meaning of “consensus” in Senate procedure). Either the Senate follows through to instruct the administration on actuation of this item, or tables and adopts a motion to remove the item, or the Senate has been degraded to a meaningless shadow of its statutory self.

A cynic might complain that one can expect to see these sorts of empty promises in federal politics, but even a cynic would agree that university Senate is not intended to be a political instrument – it is by law the highest authority on academic matters at the university.

I fear that if we do not act, there is a significant risk that the University of Ottawa Senate will become no more than a shill for a profoundly shallow and ignorant view of the academic world.

Sincerely,
Joseph Hickey

B.Sc. (Hon., Summa Cum Laude), University of Ottawa
M.Sc. candidate, University of Ottawa
Elected representative for graduate students in the Sciences and Engineering, University of Ottawa Senate

PS: In order that my agenda item and motion be given proper consideration, I now hereby re-submit my motion in the present free speech matter for the March 7th 2011 meeting of the Senate as a regular agenda item. Experience has shown that “items arising” at the end of a long meeting cannot be significant items and do not receive due attention. Many observers and visitors must leave before the items can be addressed.

Cc: Senate, media, university community

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Date: February 3, 2011
Subject: Motion for U of O Senate

Dear Mr. Hickey:

Could you please provide me with the names and addresses of the members of the media that were copied on your email to the President dated February 1, 2011.

Diane Davidson
Vice-President (Governance)
University of Ottawa

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Date: February 3, 2011
Subject: TR: Motion for U of O Senate

A tous les membres du Sénat / To All Senate Members

A titre d’information, voici une copie du courriel envoyé par Diane Davidson, vice-rectrice à la gouvernance, à Joseph Hickey pour faite suite à sa demande.

You will find below an email sent by Diane Davidson, Vice-President, Governance, to Joseph Hickey in response to his request.

Merci.

Thank you.

Secrétariat de l’Université | University Secretariat
Cabinet de la vice-rectrice à la gouvernance | Office of the Vice-President, Governance

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Date: February 3, 2011
Subject: Motion for U of O Senate

Dear Mr. Hickey:

The President has asked me to reply to your message.  As I mentioned to you last Tuesday, your motion did not reach my office on time to be placed on the agenda for the meeting of the Senate of February 7, 2011. However, as you know, nothing prevents a Senator from raising a matter under “Other business”.

That being said, we are of the opinion that this matter has already been dealt with by the Senate as noted in the attached motion and minutes of May 3, 2010 and April 12, 2010.

Thank you.

Diane Davidson
Vice-President, Governance
University of Ottawa

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Date: February 2, 2011
Subject: Motion for U of O Senate Re: Freedom of Expression, Ann Coulter affair

Dear President Rock,

In the eight months following your commitment at the University of Ottawa Senate to the university community to clarify and reaffirm the status of freedom of expression on campus, essentially no movement has been made to initiate the broad discussion and consultation that you requested.

In your words:

“As we look forward, one such alternative is for us to engage our university community in an open discussion of these matters to work toward a consensus of our shared expectations when it comes to Freedom of Expression, and how to communicate those expectations to people visiting our university.

(…)

If we can agree that there is a collective view at the University of Ottawa about the principles and responsibilities that underlie free speech, we can, for example, explore the creation of a statement of principles that we can all adopt by consensus, and that might reflect what we believe.”

As you know, I have proposed a motion to initiate your plan at Senate but this motion appears to be resisted on rather tenuous technical points by the office of the VP-Governance (email string below). This would effectively veto a duly submitted motion from a senator.

I ask you, Mr. Rock, as Chair of the Senate, to allow my motion as a regular and duly submitted agenda item. You are of course responsible for ruling on all such procedural points concerning the operation of Senate. In addition, it is a vital project the importance of which you yourself recognize.

Please do not be absent or silent on this matter Mr. Rock.

I continue to put the media in Cc given the public nature of this matter and to aid in the transparent and broad consultation that we need, following your lead.

Sincerely,

Joseph Hickey
Graduate student representative to Senate, Sciences section

Cc: Members of Senate, Media

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Date: February 1, 2011
Subject: Re: Motion for U of O Senate Re: Freedom of Expression

Dear Ms. Davidson,

The motion on freedom of expression was submitted yesterday, Monday January 31, at 4:31 p.m.  I have previously (at the January 10, 2011 meeting of the Senate) submitted a motion on the Monday before a Senate meeting at 8:49 p.m. and it was duly included on the Agenda for the meeting.

Your secretarial position that my motion on freedom of expression cannot be included on the Agenda based on an incongruous timing argument precisely demonstrates the need for fair and equitable procedural rules at Senate, as I have stressed throughout my mandate as Senator.

What is more, the May 2010 motion to uphold freedom of expression and academic freedom, which did not propose any concrete solutions to the problems exhibited in the Ann Coulter affair, can only be seen as a starting point in the Senate’s task to “work toward a consensus of our shared expectations about Freedom of Expression, and how to communicate those expectations to people visiting our university,” as President Rock stated in the April 2010 meeting.

As such I trust that my motion will be included in the regular agenda at the February 7, 2011 meeting of the Senate.

Sincerely,
Joseph Hickey

Cc: Members of Senate

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Date: February 1, 2011
Subject: Motion for U of O Senate Re: Freedom of Expression

Dear Mr. Hickey:

This is further to your request to include the attached motion on the agenda of the next Senate meeting. The agenda and relevant documentation have already been sent out this morning.

In any event,  I wish to inform you that the Senate has already disposed of the matter as recorded in attached minutes  of the Senate meetings of April 12, 2010 and May 3, 2010.

Thank you.

Diane Davidson
Vice-President, Governance

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Date: February 1, 2011
Subject: Re: Motion for U of O Senate Re: Freedom of Expression, Ann Coulter affair

Dear Ms. Davidson,

Regarding my motion on freedom of expression submitted yesterday (Jan. 31), I would expect that the Agenda for the upcoming Senate meeting (Feb. 7) will not be constructed in a manner that would minimize the motion in any way.

I feel the need to raise this point following the January 10, 2011 meeting of the Senate, where my motion to have the Senate as a whole form a procedural rules subcommittee, although it was submitted first to all Senators, appeared on the Agenda after your motion to have the Executive Committee of the Senate form the subcommittee.  The placement of my motion as point 5b after your motion as point 5a would have had the effect of negating my motion in that case, had the Senate not decided to merge 5a and 5b together before taking a vote.

In order to ensure the full democratic participation by all members of Senate, I would ask that the administration’s motions not arbitrarily take priority on the Agenda over the motions of student Senators in this case and in the future.

I also note that it has been the longstanding practice at the University of Ottawa that the VP-Governance (Secretary of the University) acts as a procedural reference at Senate, not primarily as a source of policy and motions, and that the intent of Senate is to represent the collegial governance expression of the institution on academic matters not simply to oversee executive policy development.

Sincerely,
Joseph Hickey

Cc: Members of Senate

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Date: January 31, 2011
Subject: Motion for U of O Senate Re: Freedom of Expression, Ann Coulter affair

Dear Vice-President of Governance, Diane Davidson,

Please add the following motion to the Agenda of the February 7, 2011 meeting of the University of Ottawa Senate:

WHEREAS President Allan Rock, Chair of the Senate of the University of Ottawa, at the Senate meeting of April 2010, made a commitment that the Senate would “work toward a consensus of our shared expectations about Freedom of Expression, and how to communicate those expectations to people visiting our university.”

WHEREAS this has not been done or initiated to this date despite the obvious need to avoid any similar occurrence and to clarify the university community’s values.

WHEREAS the Coulter events of March 2010 were highly damaging to the reputation and image of the University of Ottawa, on a scale never before witnessed in the institution, and therefore damaging to its ability to recruit excellent students and academic staff for its service to the world.

THEREFORE I move that the Senate initiate President Rock’s broad and vital project by setting aside adequate time for the needed discussion at its meeting of February 7, 2011 and at all Senate meetings thereafter, as needed, until an adequate policy is developed and approved about the limits of freedom of speech at the University of Ottawa and the administration’s role and responsibilities in administrating these limits, conferred onto it by the Senate.

Thank you for adding this to the agenda of the February meeting.

Given the importance of this matter I have taken the liberty of inviting the media to the next Senate meeting.

Sincerely,

Joseph Hickey
Senator, Graduate students, Sciences section

Cc: Members of Senate, Media

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