Posted on December 22, 2006

Academic Freedom Questioned

Chris Wattie, National Post (Canada), Dec. 22, 2006

A Canadian university yesterday cancelled a debate on racial diversity between the head of its black studies program and a American “racial nationalist,” for fear that the topic would be too controversial.

But the cancellation of the debate has raised concerns about academic freedom, with the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers arguing that it sends the wrong message to call off the debate at Dalhousie University next month between Professor David Divine and Jared Taylor, of American Renaissance magazine, on the topic of “Racial Diversity: North America’s Strength or Weakness?”

“The way you deal with speech some may find objectionable or even abhorrent is not with silence,” said James Turk. “It’s with more speech — with criticism and debate.

“We’re always concerned when a university shuts down debate like this, especially around controversial subjects.”

Officials of the Halifax university cited “the controversy surrounding the issue” in deciding to cancel the event, which was to be held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The university said in a statement yesterday that while “the topic is an important one . . . the university has learned more about the background and standpoint of the others involved in the proposed debate and has concluded a debate with people who held such views would not be a useful way to explore the topic.”

Instead, Professor Divine will deliver a lecture on the topic by himself, the statement said.

Mr. Taylor, who describes himself as a “race realist,” said he was shocked by the university’s about-face on the debate and said it showed “academic cowardice.”

“I’m absolutely astounded by this,” he said in an interview from his Virginia office. “In effect, he’s ejected me from the debate and taken the floor for himself . . . They’ve turned a debate into a monologue.”

Prof. Divine was not available for comment yesterday and it was not clear who decided to cancel the debate.

But Tom Traves, the Dalhousie University president told the Halifax Chronical-Herald one day before the event was cancelled that he was surprised to hear of the potential controversy and promised: “I’ll have to look into this.”

And in an e-mail to the National Post, university spokesman Charles Crosby wrote: “The powers that be have just informed me the event will now not take place.”

Posters had already been printed for the event, and Mr. Taylor said he had already booked his flight and hotel room. “I’m very disappointed and I think this speaks very ill of Dalhousie University’s commitment to freedom of speech,” he said. “They don’t want to hear dissenting points of view on this topic.”

Mr. Turk, whose association represents 55,000 teachers, librarians, researchers and other academic staff, said that regardless of what university officials thought of Mr. Taylor’s views, they should be protecting professors who raise controversy.

He gave as one example a political scientist from St. Francis Xavier University who attended a Holocaust denial conference in Iran earlier this month. Shiraz Dossa was chastized by the university’s academic vice-president this week, but has apparently not been disciplined for attending the two-day conference in Tehran.

The president of the university expressed “shock and regret” when he learned that the professor had presented a paper on how the Holocaust plays into the war on terror.

Mr. Turk insists that the “role of a university administrator is to protect their faculty’s academic freedom — not to discipline them for exercising it.”

Mr. Taylor has rejected charges that he is a closet white supremacist.

However, the Southern Poverty Law Center has called Mr. Taylor’s New Century Foundation a hate group and the U.S. Anti-Defamation League says his magazine “promotes ‘genteel’ racism: pseudoscientific, questionably researched and argued articles that validate the genetic and moral inferiority of non-whites.”

Writing last year in a magazine article, Mr. Taylor said the chaos in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina showed: “When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears.”

Mr. Taylor debated a University of Texas professor over illegal immigrants without incident last April, although the 375 people who arrived to watch the debate were scanned by police with metal-detecting wands.

University spokesmen said the extra security was because campus police had received reports of threats against Mr. Taylor’s opponent, Professor Jose Angel Gutierrez, founder of the university’s Center for Mexican-American Studies.