Strong and free: Setting the tone for difficult conversations
Hi, I’m Deborah Saucier, president of MacEwan University.
Just yesterday we welcomed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and close to 1,700 guests as the host venue for a federal government town hall meeting. It was an opportunity to invite community members to our campus – many of whom may never have been here before – to participate in an open forum, and to reflect on how our university fits into our city, our province and our country.
When I think about the ideas, issues and concerns that were expressed last night, it reinforces something I’ve been thinking, reading and talking about a lot lately: how important it is to have tough conversations and to be able to disagree.
Embracing tough conversations
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a Friday evening listening to faculty members, staff and alumni speak at our first TEDxMacEwanU event. Hearing the stories, experiences and big ideas they had to share was inspiring. It was an honour (and a challenge) to follow them with a talk about why universities need to be prepared for tough conversations. To me, it’s about values.
Much of the public discourse about universities is about research, teaching and jobs. However, I would argue that the single most important thing that we do at universities is to enable the development of ethical citizens – citizens who exemplify the university’s commitment to diversity equity and inclusion. Because when those ethical citizens work together – and debate together – they build resilient communities.
Debate is something we’re really good at in universities, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. We discuss and debate difficult ideas here – including ideas that are distasteful to some people. Academic freedom and free and open debate are at the heart of a university’s purpose, and one of the central ways we uphold the values of the charter to make for a stronger Canada.
We need to protect our ability to engage in these conversations. We must protect the freedom of universities to engage in research, scholarly work and creative practice that challenge the status quo, regardless of whether or not we are uncomfortable.
It’s vital that these activities inform our teaching – they allow us to point out the variety of viewpoints and areas of disagreement in our communities, and help our students build the skills to make up their own minds about issues.
Disrupting the focus on disruption
But too often, respectful and civil discussion of difficult ideas is not what we see in the places where we get our news. Instead, the focus is on disruption, leading people to think that free speech is under attack at universities (and maybe it is at some universities in some countries).
I would suggest that this perspective is a misunderstanding resulting from the reporting of the events and how we engage the communities that surround us.
Let’s be honest, we live in a post-truth world – one viewpoint of which is that people are not only entitled to their own opinions, but also to their own facts. Too often we judge debates by who the pundits said won and how that fits within our own worldview. I know I’ve been guilty of that.
“After all, principled discussions of values – even those that are unpopular, unconventional and challenge the status quo – are where many of the biggest changes in society have come from.”
True academic debate is not about winning or losing. Nor is it a popularity contest. It’s about discussing, listening, developing your argument and being swayed by others (or not). This is how universities support Canada’s charter and build communities – by providing a place for the free and respectful exchange of ideas.
After all, principled discussions of values – even those that are unpopular, unconventional and challenge the status quo – are where many of the biggest changes in society have come from.
That being said, unlike our neighbours to the south, Canada has laws about what constitutes hate speech. I’m not a legal scholar, but my reading of the statutes is that hate speech is that which promotes genocide or hatred towards an identifiable group. Thus, not all difficult, distasteful or offensive speech crosses that line.
Which is why I agree with other university presidents that universities have a role in defending free and lawful expression of perspectives and ideas. If these positions challenge pre-conceptions and move across disciplinary boundaries, so much the better.
Filling our debate toolkits
Debate is such an important part of our students’ university experience. It’s our job to teach our students to be skeptical, to assess ideas for themselves, to engage with others who have very different perspectives and realities, and to take part in conversations that are challenging and focus on sensitive topics.
That doesn’t mean every disagreement requires debate – sometimes it is better to walk away.
Universities succeed when we provide our students with the tools to decide for themselves when to engage and when to wait for a more opportune moment.
If we are to remain strong and free as universities, we must continue to focus on free and respectful discourse about hard topics. It’s what allows us all – students, faculty and staff – to develop as ethical citizens, which in my opinion, is our most important job.
I had more to say in my TEDxMacEwanU talk. Videos of all the talks will be posted at MacEwan.ca/TEDx in the next week or two. I hope you’ll take some time to watch.
Join the conversation
Having difficult conversations, looking at our role in the community, asking what it means to be a contemporary undergraduate university – these are all topics where your perspective and experience is valued.
If you haven’t had the chance to engage directly in a discussion about what all of these issues mean to our future, there are new opportunities to get involved during the coming weeks.
Organizational Development Day – February 22
Faculty and staff are invited to take part in Organizational Development Day on Thursday, February 22. The entire morning is dedicated to discussing some big topics in small groups – things like what it means to be a welcoming, inclusive downtown university, the strengths we have and what we can build together. You’ll be asked to share your perspective on and ideas about these big issues from where you sit in the organization.
Town Hall – March 7
Make sure to save the date for another university-wide town hall meeting on Wednesday, March 7 from 12 - 1 p.m. in the Triffo Theatre. Watch your email and Today at MacEwan University for details.
Students, faculty and staff are welcome to attend the town hall, and can send questions in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several of the questions we receive are also incorporated into future president and vice-president columns published on MacEwan.ca.
I was honoured to help open the 2018 Interdisciplinary Dialogue on January 17 with a blanket exercise led by two fourth-year Bachelor of Child and Youth Care students, Luciann Crazyboy and Mackenzie Brown (pictured here), and guests from Edmonton Public Schools.
On Thursday, February 1, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted a town hall meeting in our gym. It was a great opportunity to welcome close to 1,700 visitors to our campus.
I had so much fun reading "Slinky Malinki" by Lynley Dodd with Mia by my side at the Family Literacy Carnival on Sunday, January 28. The event was organized by students in MacEwan's chapter of the Golden Key International Honour Society.
We welcomed Teresa Spinelli as our 2018 Allard Chair in Business in January, and are looking forward to officially recognizing her at an event on March 8. See MacEwan.ca/AllardChair.
I was so proud to see our faculty members, staff and graduates shine in front of a sold-out crowd at our first TEDxMacEwanU event.
David McLaughlin, me and Marg Leathem helping ourselves to the hats in the photo booth at the Holiday Luncheon in December.
Budgeting, planning and recruiting
The budget process continues to move forward as we look at the 2018/19 budget, and determine how best to align the 2019/20 budget with a new strategic plan. We will continue to share information about our progress with you.
A Campus Master Plan exercise is underway to develop a long-term vision for the campus for discussion with the Board of Governors in June. Watch for more information and opportunities for consultation.
We are currently recruiting for Vice-President University Relations and Associate Vice-President, Student Affairs positions. Plans are to have both roles filled by the summer.
Consider taking part in one of several focus groups being held in February and early March to gain faculty and staff perspectives on key elements of the university’s Conflict of Interest and Commitment Policy. It’s part of meeting new requirements of the Conflicts of Interest Amendment Act, 2017.
Things I think you should know:
Everyone is welcome to take part in the Interdisciplinary dialogue – Colonization: Grappling with Truths on February 13.
Don’t forget to register for Organizational Development Day by February 14.
We’re making it easier for you to invite members of our senior administration and Board of Governors to attend or speak at your event. Make sure to use our new request form at MacEwan.ca/SpeakerRequest for your next event.
In March, we are offering the first in a new series of mental health workshops for students, called The Inquiring Mind. Sessions will run monthly until May, and it’s just the beginning of a much larger mental health campaign on campus. Watch for more information on how we’re #ChangingMinds in the coming weeks.
President, MacEwan University
@DocSaucier on Twitter
Read past columns from the president