Message from Principal Heather Munroe-Blum

Published: 12 February 2012

Message from Principal Heather Munroe-Blum

Dear colleagues and students,

I write to share with you my thoughts on the James Building occupation, which, of course, I have been following closely with the members of the senior team handling the situation. I fully support the difficult decisions they have had to make as this protest unfolded. I am grateful that those occupying the sixth floor of James have been safely escorted from the building and campus.

The past week emphasizes even more the need for us, as a community, to debate what Dean Jutras refers to in his report as “the meaning and scope of the rights of free expression and peaceful assembly on campus,” and to determine the appropriate parameters of those rights.

It is clear that there are differences of opinion in our community as to what constitutes an appropriate expression of dissent. There has been some fierce debate on Twitter, Facebook and blogs this week concerning the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the James Building occupation as a form of protest.

I believe that in a university community, as in all civil society, respect and tolerance go hand-in-hand with free expression. In the context of current social movements on our campus, and more broadly, there has emerged what appears to be a polarization of the way in which some people reject, or even demonize, those who hold points of view different from their own. This trend is affecting McGill. I trust that the discussions we will have in the coming months will help all of us – students, faculty, administrative and support staff, and the senior administration–  to find effective ways to have our views heard and to listen to each other, and especially to those with views different from our own.

Some students feel that the senior administration has not been available to listen in a meaningful and respectful way. Others feel that a small group of students and faculty have been asserting their views and right to freedom of expression over and above those of other members of the community. Fortunately, we have begun to make progress in creating new fora for exchanging views—especially difficult and divergent views—particularly since November 10th.

I, and members of my team, commit to take positive steps toward promoting, with you, more fruitful relationships among the various constituencies that make up our University. We require a lot more discussion and exchange of ideas, listening to each other. I assure you that we will continue down that road.

Some members of our community will be outraged that we made the decision to call in the police to remove the occupiers. I believe that the unwelcome occupation of private offices and mocking and disrespectful behavior towards specific individuals is not an appropriate or effective form of protest. Many of the staff in the James building have been and remain on edge as a result of repeated unwelcome intrusions into their work space, including in the weeks just prior to the occupation of this past week.

Even as we value enormously the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, each employee of the University has the right to a work space in which they feel safe and secure. It is our responsibility to ensure that they have this. There is a distinction to be made between the right to freedom of expression on the one hand, and the University’s policies prohibiting activities that hinder the regular functioning of the University, its administration, health and safety requirements, or activities that infringe upon the personal offices of employees.

I look forward to hearing your views on the situation as we undertake a series of Open Forum discussions on freedom of expression and civil debate on our campuses.

Tomorrow morning I will issue my response to the Jutras report. Today, Provost Masi and Vice-Principal Di Grappa will issue a provisional protocol regarding demonstrations, protests and occupations on campus. This protocol represents an interim set of guidelines and is not meant to usurp the fora on free speech and civil dissent recommended by the Jutras report. Elements of this provisional protocol may be revised as a result of the Open Forum discussions and consultation with students, staff and professors. I encourage the community to comment on these guidelines as part of the ongoing discussion.

As you know, various protests have taken place recently, both on campus and elsewhere in Montreal, and more are planned leading up to the March 22nd Quebec-wide tuition related demonstrations. I, as Principal, along with the other members of the senior administration, believe that in order to fulfill our responsibilities to protect the safety of our community, and to ensure the functioning of the University, a provisional protocol must be in place in order that we have clear, public rules to guide us, even if elements of these rules might eventually change.

I would like to thank the James Building staff for their efforts to carry out their work on behalf of the University in the face of repeated disruptions. In addition, I want to thank all of you for your patience and composure over the past week in dealing with any disruptions to our services that might have made your lives more difficult.

Heather Munroe-Blum

Principal and Vice-Chancellor, McGill University

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