February 21, 2006

President MacLauchlan's response to SAFS

Dear Dr. Seligman,
The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship misjudges or deliberately minimalizes the harm arising from the publication of the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. 
SAFS favours publishing the cartoons despite the fact that there have now been almost 50 deaths world-wide, including more than 25 on the weekend of February 18.  SAFS would say these events are far removed from UPEI's campus - in effect, that we are free to engage in reckless free speech in Canada because we have a tolerant, civil society.  Perhaps that was the thinking of the Danish cartoonist.
How would SAFS respond to a PEI Muslim woman who describes the hurt caused by the cartoons to be "... as if I had been raped out on the street while the people surrounding me watched.I expect SAFS would say that she should develop a thicker skin.  UPEI takes seriously these feelings of hurt and humiliation, as well as those of Muslim students and colleagues at UPEI and the broader Muslim community on PEI and across Canada. 
The SAFS letter fails to credit the UPEI Student Union with a leadership role in the withdrawal of the Cadre.  The Student Union withdrew support for publication of the cartoons and, as owner of the paper, asked for its return, acknowledging "we must take into account the overwhelming reaction that these cartoons have caused worldwide.
While SAFS appears to prefer an academic environment where shouting and disorder are barometers of freedom, I believe we must continually strive for an engaged and positive learning environment.  Universities must become ever better and richer places of learning and animated debate.  The discourse on our campuses, including what we model for our students and future leaders, should include speaking and listening (which includes respect), courage and curiosity (which includes humility), discretion and a sense of proportion.  
At UPEI, there are ongoing animated debates about the cartoons, about press freedom and responsibility, about the intensely integrated nature of our global community, and about the quality of the tolerant, dynamic and robust community that we enjoy and must continue to build. 
Today, in the aftermath of the cartoon controversy, Muslim students at UPEI tell me that they are engaging with other students about their religious beliefs.  The Cadre will appear this week with a full debate (including an interview with myself).  Students will hold a colloquium to reflect on issues of expression and diversity raised by the controversy.  Professors and students are actively talking about all of the issues, in and out of class. 
I am absolutely convinced that the climate on campus at UPEI and the quality of our debates are much the richer today than they would be if the cartoons were still in circulation.  Apparently, SAFS would say that I am overstepping my bounds as president to act to support this safe and positive learning climate.  With respect, I disagree. 
H. Wade MacLauchlan
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Prince Edward Island

Published in the National Post, February 23, 2006, p.A17 and The Cadre, February 22, 2006, p1, online.

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