The Principal’s Task Force on Respect and Inclusion held an open forum on Jan. 24. It was the first of a series of student consultations about diversity and respectful expression at McGill, and how to best ensure that student life is inclusive of all students. The Task Force is to submit a final report of its findings to the McGill administration on April 27.
After a Fall 2017 semester marked by allegations of anti-Semitism on campus and Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) infighting—all falling along familiar fault-lines—as well as provincial legislation targeting female Muslim students, it’s easy to be skeptical of the promise of an administration initiative purporting to make campus a nicer place. Compared to other schools’ recent attempts to address tolerance and free expression more explicitly, the Task Force’s mandate to “operationalize McGill’s core principles” reads broad and ill-defined.
But, the issue of respectful, inclusive debate on university campuses is extremely broad and inherently ill-defined. It demands grassroots consultation and investigation, not top-down statements of principles—the University of British Columbia’s middling and widely-criticized statement on free expression has done little to mitigate campus divisions on the subject. The McGill Task Force presents a platform for discussion about what inclusivity on campus actually means, for all students and student groups—including and especially those whose voices are not often heard on campus. While it’s unclear what the initiative will ultimately accomplish, the Task Force correctly understands that Canadian universities must consult students first and foremost if they are to increase tolerance and inclusion on their campuses.
McGill is not alone in attempting to address these issues. Recent controversies blurring the lines between free expression and bigotry on campuses have prompted other North American schools to speak up in defence of free speech, to varying reception. The University of Chicago’s renunciation of safe spaces made waves in August 2016, while the University of British Columbia’s statement has been criticized across the political spectrum.
Such statements only reiterate the same, exhausting impasse that the debate on campus tolerance and free expression keeps coming up against: The value of free speech versus the value of safe spaces. Convening a task force may be a strategic PR move, but to the McGill administration’s credit, it also demonstrates a willingness to listen before speaking out, and at least an attempt to understand the contours and consequences of inclusivity on campus as told by its most important stakeholders—students. Given McGill’s varied track record when it comes to student outreach and consultation, that initiative should be commended.
For the Task Force to succeed in elevating student voices, it must encourage and include all student voices. That requires amplifying those voices typically sidelined by more pervasive campus issues. Student groups embroiled in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) debate can and should use this platform to share their perspectives. At the same time, conscious effort must be made to include students with experiences of exclusion that are not often at the forefront of campus debate. If the Task Force wants to start a comprehensive discussion about free expression and respect at McGill, it is integral to include LGBTQ+ students, Indigenous students, students of colour, and other underrepresented and marginalized communities on campus in this conversation. Identifying areas on campus that are consistently less inclusive than others—organized drinking events are one timely example—is likewise essential.
Moreover, students themselves must be open to participating in that discussion. The Task Force is a good first step on the McGill administration’s part toward bettering the spaces that we learn and debate in, and understanding student experiences with them, but these efforts cannot end with its conclusion. Respect and inclusion on campus fundamentally come down to the actions of students themselves. Whatever principles a school aims to maintain, campus culture is ultimately a product of the campus community that lives and shapes it.
Watch McGill students reflect on inclusion and respect on campus here: