On Oct. 25, McGill University announced the launch of an investigation into whether anti-Semitism was present at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Fall General Assembly (GA). The announcement, sent via email to students and staff, was a response to allegations of religious prejudice at the GA when three of 10 members of the SSMU Board of Directors (BoD) were not ratified, one of whom—Noah Lew—was Jewish.
Former McGill professor of Education and ombudsperson Spencer Boudreau is the lead investigator looking into the allegations. Since the beginning of November, he has interviewed all of the SSMU executives and other student representatives present at the Fall GA.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, SSMU VP External Connor Spencer explained her initial concerns that the inquiry lacked authenticity and integrity.
“A conversation that we were having was [that] there’s a direct conflict of interest for one institution to be investigating another institution,” Spencer said. “It’s very weird for McGill to be investigating SSMU, especially [given] last year, when [the administration threatened] to cut our funding around this issue. There was an initial pessimism as to what the point of the investigation was, and whether or not there was going to be bias in the investigation because of how the administration handled [the Sadikov investigation] last year.”
However, as the inquiry has progressed, Spencer has found her concerns to be somewhat abated.
“Everyone was wary when McGill launched the investigation as to its intent and scope […] but I think the folks that have spoken to [Boudreau] are feeling a little more reassured,” Spencer said. “It seems like he is legitimately trying to figure out whether the claims of anti-Semitism are true.”
The Oct. 25 email also announced the creation of the Principal’s Task Force for Respect and Inclusion in Campus Life. The Task Force will operate independently of the investigation, broadly examining freedom of expression, respect, and inclusivity on campus, and make recommendations for university improvements in these realms in a final report on April 27, 2018.
Dean of Science R. Bruce Lennox and Associate Professor of Law Nandini Ramanujam, co-chairs of the Principal’s Task Force on Respect and Inclusion in Campus Life, spoke at a press conference on Nov. 21 about preparations to launch the Force’s operations in the Winter term. The Task Force, which will include both graduate and undergraduate students, will attempt to evaluate the state of respectful debate on campus by conducting campus-wide surveys of students, faculty, and campus organizations. Based on the surveys’ results, the Task Force then intends to delegate specific working groups, host a town hall meeting, and draft a list of concrete recommendations for the university.
“The overlap between respect and inclusion is respectful debate, respectful discussion, and I think the Venn diagram of those two entities is where we're going to operate,” Lennox said. "How does one apply the concepts of freedom of expression in an academic environment?”
Lennox clarified that, although the Task Force was announced alongside the investigation, this timing was coincidental, with the Task Force not exclusively concerned with anti-Semitism or particular groups or events.
“There was a coincident announcement of an investigation into [the Fall GA], and there was an announcement that a task force would be struck, whose definition was not specific at that time,” Lennox said. “But the task force did not arise from that event, it’s been an ongoing discussion [….] We will assure you that this isn’t about an incident or a crisis, it’s about who we are as an institution.”
Ramanujam also sees the Task Force as an effort to address McGill’s long-standing interests in inclusivity. According to Ramanujam, it is the product of an ongoing conversation among faculty members that dates back generations.
“I see our work not as reactive but proactive,” Ramanujam said. “We are all a part of the collective university space, the Faculty of Law has been talking a great deal for a long time about safe spaces, inclusive spaces, respectful spaces, and […] so I see this [Task Force] as something that is neither the beginning or the end of this process.”
With the goal to alleviate any concerns over inclusivity on campus, Lennox is confident that McGill suffers from no extraordinary challenges in cultivating a culture of inclusion and respect compared to other universities. She hopes that the University can take a leadership role in providing space for safe discussions.
“[University] is where our society expects people to be able to express their point of view, to debate it, and to listen, so that as a construct has incredible value,” Lennox said. “We have a tremendous leadership responsibility, and I think McGill in particular, because of who McGill is, with diversity in our student population, our staff, our faculty, [is] in a sweet spot for dealing with this challenge.”