Queen's Cancels 'Dialogue Facilitator' Program

April 2009

Calling it "incompatible with the atmosphere required for free speech," Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., on Wednesday scrapped its controversial "dialogue facilitator" program.

It caused a scandal last year when it was revealed the six student "facilitators" were mandated to intervene in private conversations to encourage discussion of social justice issues and discourage offensive language.

In a report to the administration, a panel of experts expressed "strong reservations about unsolicited interventions into the lives of students" because of the risk of "making students feel unsafe or under surveillance because of their opinions."

The panel included Leora Jackson, the school's rector, John Meisel, an emeritus professor of political science, and Keith Norton, the former head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. They had "serious concerns" with how the program was set up.

The panel faulted Dean of Student Affairs Jason Laker for importing an American model of diversity promotion, from the National Coalition Building Institute, while failing to research any comparable programs at Canadian universities.

The panel report also faults him for giving "no thought" to a communications strategy to explain it, and for not involving anyone outside of the Student Affairs office in the program's design. The campus consultations his office did do were "inadequate, ineffective and undertaken too late." The review was launched in response to "a tempest of negative, sometimes searing, comment in the national press." It did not find evidence of the worst fears expressed in the media commentary, such as comparisons to the KGB. "In all of our consultations, we found no evidence of snooping," the report reads.

At the peak of the controversy in November, Patrick Deane, vice-president (academic), said the media "have not sought to ascertain the facts," and that the program "has a very simple goal: to foster amongst students, in their ordinary interactions, a spirit of mutual respect and understanding."

On Wednesday, however, Mr. Deane accepted the recommendation to kill the program, but noted that there had been no actual complaints about the facilitators.

"I think the very public discussion around this was triggered, I suppose, by the hot-button issue of freedom of speech, and my personal complaint, and I suppose the university's complaint during that process, was that the context for the program needed to be more fully understood, and the whole question of the likelihood of people feeling constrained in that way [by a dialogue intervention] needed to be better understood before it was condemned," Mr. Deane said. "Had it been better communicated, people might not have been misled. You can't blame people for being led to conclusions if they're not given sufficient information."

He said Queen's will continue to try to address the problems of racial and religious intolerance.

The six facilitators who were hired last year will serve out the remainder of this academic year, "but should not engage in active dialogue intervention," the report reads.