Presidential Statement to Governing Council regarding concerns about racist and offensive incidents on campus

March 26, 2006

Statement by President David Naylor

A History Of Diversity

For decades, this University has placed a special emphasis on creating the most diverse academic community possible. We have done so because outstanding scholarship and outstanding teaching can only thrive in an environment that embraces the broadest range of people and encourages the free expression of their diverse perspectives.

Year by year, we have succeeded in building a safe place for the widest breadth of communities, of experiences and thus inevitably, of ideas. By some measures, the University of Toronto is now more diverse even than Toronto itself. Continuing to advance that achievement remains our daily work.

A Current Strain

Thus, it is also important for us to take note when part of our community feels under particular strain.

I am concerned that a number of incidents in the past few weeks have made the current environment difficult for members of our Muslim community. Misinformation about these incidents has only compounded that anxiety. I am disappointed that some members of our community have offered commentary on these distressing events that has not been particularly accurate or helpful.

In order to ensure the accuracy of this discussion, let me describe the facts as we know them about four incidents in particular and what the University’s response has been:

  • On March 7, a hijab-wearing female UTM student was followed into a bathroom at Hart House by another woman who confronted her verbally and shoved a poster onto her chest. The poster advertised a rally in support of the Danish cartoons that had portrayed the prophet Mohammed in a manner offensive to Muslims. The victim left the bathroom, threw the poster in the garbage and rejoined her friend in the Arbor Room. The assailant followed her out of the bathroom, found her in the Arbor Room, and began to yell anti-Islamic epithets at the student and her friend.
  • The victim reported this incident to the campus police. Campus police sent an officer to Hart House, but didn’t find anyone matching the description of the assailant. The police continue to investigate this incident.
  • On March 8, International Women’s Day, student leaders from SAC were distributing Women’s Day leaflets on the southeast corner of St. George and Bloor. Three eggs were dropped onto the group from the Woodsworth College residence under which they were standing. One egg narrowly missed two Muslim women wearing hijab, who were there as part of the SAC group.
  • Campus police responded immediately, and questioned people at the site. However, because no one claimed that they had been hit or specifically targeted, the police determined that they had no grounds to continue their investigation. Woodsworth is investigating to ascertain the identity of those involved and appropriate action will be taken by the College.
  • Two Weeks Ago:Fliers including one of the Danish cartoons and statements that have caused offense to Muslims started to appear on a variety of locations around U of T and, apparently, around York University. U of T’s Anti Racism Office contacted police and asked them to take the fliers down treating them the way that we treat all offensive graffiti. Campus police forwarded the fliers to Toronto Police. On March 14, Toronto Police advised U of T that these fliers did not constitute hate literature, but also advised that the fliers were a “point of interest” for them.
  • On March 20, Sunday, an African-Canadian man attending an Islamic theological conference that had rented space on campus was the victim of a hit-and-run at Huron and Russell Streets, after a verbal confrontation during which the assailant had yelled racial epithets at the victim. The victim was taken to hospital for examination and observation and then released. The alleged assailant later turned himself into Toronto Police, who have laid charges for dangerous driving and assault. The assailant has been released on bail – with the condition that he stay away from the U of T campus.
  • The victim was not a member of the U of T community. It is our understanding that the assailant is not a member of the U of T community. This did not take place in connection with any U of T programming or on U of T property, and we have seen no evidence to suggest that the incident had any connection to the Islamic conference happening nearby.
  • Nonetheless, the University Administration feels a profound responsibility to ensure a safe environment on our campuses and we responded fully and quickly. Immediately upon learning of the incident, U of T Police sent five special constables to the conference with offers to escort attendees after the conference, if they so desired. U of T’s acting provost went to the conference immediately to assist attendees and police, and, the anti-racism officer went to the conference to speak with attendees and police.

Clearly, these incidents take place in a setting of growing ethnic and religious tensions in Western society. That a university such as ours, which pursues diversity as a central tenet, should find itself a venue for the ugliest displays of that tension is perhaps inevitable.

It is most certainly regrettable, and it is without question intolerable.

Other Canadian universities have faced similar tensions in recent years. We, like they, can only respond to racism by confronting it directly, prosecuting it whenever warranted, protecting the safety of our members, and promoting diversity with unwavering commitment. This University has long been and remains opposed to Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and every conceivable form of discrimination based on race, religion or faith, or ethnocultural identity. Combating these myriad forms of racism and discrimination is the daily work for many members of your administration, and it is a daily commitment made by countless members of the wider U of T community.

On that point, I have to register concern at the way some individuals have publicized the hit-and-run crime this weekend as linked to the Islamophobic incidents that clearly involved members of our University community. The struggle against racism is not advanced by commentary that fuels anxieties or that unfairly impugns the reputation for inclusivity of our remarkably diverse University community. In that respect, the Administration decided last week to proceed with a statement today, and we have been firm in not allowing this weekend’s unrelated incident to alter our timetable. My considered view is that no amount of public rhetoric is a substitute for the private professionalism and commitment demonstrated so abundantly by members of the Student Affairs team and our Campus Police in their interactions with victims of discrimination and their outreach to members of the affected communities.

Last Friday, I had the honour to attend Muslim Jumma prayers at Hart House – where they have been held for over forty years. In speaking with members of our community there, I underscored the fact that the University of Toronto is theirhome; that Muslim students, faculty and staff are integral to this learning community; that diversity and respect for difference is our advantage, and that the strength that they have shown in continuing to educate others about their community in the face of these difficulties has benefited us all.

The University has worked with student groups to develop the plans for a multi-faith centre that will provide an appropriate permanent location for Muslim students, as well as the many other faith communities on our campus. I am pleased that construction on this facility will commence this summer.

I am proud of the way that Muslim students on campus have joined forces with other groups, most notably Hillel, to challenge ethno-cultural stereotyping and actions that promote intolerance. In many ways, these two communities have provided a model of bridge building for all of us to pursue further.

I also want to thank a great many people in the Administration, in our faculties and within our student bodies who devote themselves, daily, to fighting racism and building equity.

The University’s Values

Some have asked how the University applies the principle of free expression in the current climate.

Let me say very specifically that the University will not tolerate actions that appear to rise to the level of a hate crime, or for that matter, any criminal act. We have worked and will continue to work to protect the victims, to investigate these events quickly and thoroughly, and to forward any evidence to the Toronto Police for their prosecution where evidence exists to support a conviction.

I would add that incidents targeting individuals on the basis of their identity — even if they do not rise to the level of an actual crime — also cause us grave concern, because they undermine the basic purpose of this learning community.

Of course, the principle of free expression is a cornerstone of free academies in democratic societies. No university embracing that principle can ban legal expressions of opinion. Indeed, as we have noted before, every member of the University community should be prepared to confront opinions they find morally offensive.

Nonetheless, any action undertaken for the sole purpose of causing distress to other members of the University of Toronto undermines the basic purpose of this learning community. Our purpose is to advance knowledge through teaching and research in an environment of inclusiveness and respect. Intolerance is a destructive distraction from that goal. It thus has no moral place at this University, even when expressed through means that are protected by the principle of free expression.

To repeat: There will be offensive expressions that we cannot suppress or censor because of our respect for the core value of free speech on our campus and in our society. But I want to serve notice that this Administration will not hesitate to communicate its concerns to those who seek not to promote a dialogue, but to posture as demagogues.

Beyond all of these considerations, any action that threatens the physical safety and well-being of University members or of visitors to our campuses is absolutely intolerable. Every member of the U of T community is responsible for ensuring an environment in which their peers and guests feel safe and welcome. And, I assure you that this administration will continue to focus on ensuring the safety of all our campuses.

The Path Ahead

Let me summarize: The University of Toronto will continue to uphold the principle of free expression — even, at times, to a degree that may be uncomfortable in broader society — because it is the cornerstone of our daily work.

In so doing, we expect all members of this community to be mindful of the fine line between discourse that is provocatively reasonable and that which is unreasonably provocative because it targets individuals on the basis of their identity. Racism and discrimination on the basis of religion or ethno-cultural identity are unacceptable on our three campuses.

To that end, we will also continue to devote major resources to strengthening the culture of inclusiveness and respect for differences that already characterizes so much of our University. In that effort, I remain grateful for the contributions of countless members of our learning community who, in their everyday interactions with each other, uphold the principle that equity and diversity are essential prerequisites for the long-term success of this great University.