On March 20, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens released a statement refusing the controversial request of women-only gym hours that has resulted in debate both on and off-campus. The statement, which came as a surprise to many, cited McGill’s nature as a secular, co-educational institution as the main reasons for its decision to refuse the adoption of women-only gym hours and end negotiations with students. According to a response by Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President University Affairs, Claire Stewart-Kannigan, the students advocating for the women-only hours were close to a compromise with McGill Athletics before the administration abruptly put an end to the talks.
The administration’s release of a somewhat rash statement defending its stance demonstrated a failure to engage students in the decision-making process, and left the resolution of the controversy unclear. Moreover, promising talks with McGill Athletics were underway, in which the university was considering providing women-only hours in the Varsity Weight Room, a space separate from the main Fitness Centre. Stewart-Kannigan maintains that the administration did not consult with students before the release of its statement and the closing of negotiations. The administration should have had more lines of communication with students, and engaged in negotiations that were taking place, which could have resulted in a successful compromise.
Dyens has encouraged Soumia Allalou, the student who brought forward the request, to gather statistics and qualitative information for how the proposition could benefit students. Such a break in negotiations could have been beneficial for both sides to regroup amidst the controversy. However, f the decision was grounded in McGill’s secular principles, as stated by the administration, then the introduction of data will have no effect on the administration’s decision.
According to an interview with Stewart-Kannigan, women-only hours were proposed several years ago at the McGill pool by a group of Orthodox Jewish women, and the university accepted their request for religious accomodation. Stewart-Kannigan cited the heated nature of the topic of religoius accomodation for Muslim women in the media currently as the reason for the divergent decisions on the pool hours versus gym hours. Confronted with this fact, Dyens stated in an interview with the CBC that the issue of modesty at the pool is fundamentally different than at the gym. This assumption is subjective, and doesn’t take into account the feelings of students at the gym who may also feel uncomfortable. The administration should have discussed this perspective with students instead of deciding unilaterally what defines modesty and making the decision on behalf of students.
If part of the university’s reasoning for denying women-only gym hours was rooted in the promotion of secularism, the conflicting stances on the pool and the gym hours undermine the logic behind the administration’s decisions. Moreover, many other universities, including the University of Toronto, York, Ryerson, and University of Ottawa, have implemented women-only hours in their own athletic facilities, which provides another argument against the administration’s stance that the women-only hours are not in line with the university’s secular nature.
In addition to the boldness of the administration’s actions, the statement that was released was characterized by contradictory and unclear reasoning. The imprecise ideological justification for the decision, which cited both arguments of secularism and the issue of modesty, rendered the administration’s statements and actions contradictory. It is thus difficult for students to mobilize an initiative against the administration since the rationalization behind the decision remains hazy.
Although keeping the dialogue with students open might have caused controversy on campus and its coverage in the media to linger, it would have likely resulted in a compromise that most students and administrators could have been satisfied with. SSMU Council approved a motion on March 26 demanding that the university reopen negotiations, revealing that students are still interested in talking. Regardless of the decision that is reached, the administration should seek to engage students in this issue and attempt to reach a settlement that incorporates the interests of all those involved.