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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Trampling on academic integrity

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The role of a university in today’s world is diverse and nuanced. However, embedded in the mission statements of most institutions of higher learning, as an overarching principle, is an allusion to the pursuit of excellence, a respect for scholarship, and the promotion of truth and intellectual curiosity.

Included in the goals of Princeton University is the development (in its undergraduates) of “such core values as honesty, integrity and fairness.” Harvard College encourages its students “to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought,” while Cornell University pledges to “foster initiative, integrity and excellence in an environment of collegiality, civility, and responsible stewardship.” One of the University of Toronto’s stated objectives is to imbue in its students “the ability to think clearly, judge objectively, and contribute constructively to society.” McMaster University’s vision is “to achieve international distinction for creativity, innovation and excellence.”

It’s fitting that the mission statements of the academy speak to motivations that are both ambitious and principled. To a greater or lesser extent, university faculty are guided by such expectations and, in so doing, they undertake to conduct themselves with a degree of academic integrity that is becoming of them, their students and the institutions they represent.

What’s therefore so galling is when faculty, or more particularly university administrators (who are themselves adherents to their mission statements), are perceived to be compromising their values by allowing into our lecture halls interlopers who have no record of scholarship and who, through polemic, bigotry and mendacity, trample on the very essence of civility and rational enquiry that governs acceptable behaviour on our campuses.

A case in point is the recent visit to McMaster by Zafar Bangash, an imam from York Region. While well known as a brazen apologist for the Iranian regime, Bangash will also be remembered for his pernicious rant outside Queen’s Park in August of last year, at a so-called “al-Quds Day” rally. His intimidating demeanour, his recourse to historical fabrication, and his offensive messages were again manifest throughout his McMaster speech. Embellishing his depiction of Zionists as “parasites” and “barbarians,” as recorded during his Queen’s Park outburst, he deliberately interposed a reference to Nazism while describing “Zionists as racists” when he responded to a question at his McMaster presentation.  

But even aside from such slurs, his visceral anti-Americanism, his denigration of Canadian policy and his alleged threats of retribution against Jews if Iran were to be attacked crossed many a red line.

The specifics of his propagandist diatribe needs to be more carefully analyzed, but the more generic issue relates not so much to what he said but to why reputable universities, such as McMaster, feel obligated to provide him, and his ilk, with a forum to spread their toxic, anti-intellectual views in the first place.

Why is it that there is such a disconnect between the high level of academic discourse demanded of university faculty while speakers invited from outside are allowed to ignore any semblance of scholarly construct, without scrutiny or penalty, both to them and to the groups that bring them to campus? Until this flagrant double standard is properly addressed, the worthy ideals embodied in our university mission statements will continue to be tarnished.

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