A pilot program at Queen’s University promoted as a tool to help students embrace diversity is being defended by administration and a student leader who say it’s not an attempt to quash freedom of speech.
As part of its ongoing efforts to increase inclusivity, the university in Kingston, Ont., trained and installed six student facilitators to work with first-year students living in campus residences starting in September.
They were tasked with spotting “spontaneous teaching moments” concerning issues of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability and social class, and to respond – either actively by posing questions to spur discussion, or more passively through activities like poster campaigns or movies.
Such moments may very well occur in cafeterias or common rooms, and it’s possible the facilitators might then step in, said vice-principal academic Patrick Deane.
“It’s been suggested … these people are expected to act as thought and speech police. It’s exactly the opposite,” he said.
“What they’re there to do is encourage students not to censor each other, not to silence each other in different ways, but to have a respectful conversation and dialogue.”
The distinction between public and private space becomes foggy within student living spaces, he acknowledged.
“In the residence setting, it’s perfectly possible that students who are behaving in a manner that’s disrespectful would have it pointed out to them,” he said.
“(But) to suggest that they are in some way empowered to monitor the way students speak and call students into account for things they might have said absolutely is out of the purview.”
Talia Radcliffe, president of the Alma Mater Society students union, said she feels the program has been “mischaracterized.”
“(The program) has no coercive measures, no punitive aspects whatsoever,” she said.
“(It’s) kind of like a platform from which to jump, rather than a wrist-slapping for bad language.”
Over the past several years, Queen’s University has been forced into the spotlight on occasion for incidents of racism on campus, including an attack on a faculty member and derogatory vandalism in buildings and on student property.
“We see it as an issue on our campus, and we see it as an obligation of our university to address it on as many fronts as we can,” Deane said, though he added that such incidents aren’t the sole reason for the program’s creation.
Among scholars and human rights advisers, the initiative – which Queen’s calls unique within the Canadian university system – is receiving cautious praise.
“This sounds like one more innovative tool (at Queen’s), and I think if it’s done well in terms of the right people with the right training, that it may well be effective,” said Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“In order for it to work, students are going to have to feel comfortable with it, and that will mean having people who are able to engage them and listen to them.”
Greg Clarke, executive director at the University of Alberta’s Centre for Constitutional Studies, said while he’s in favour of such a program in theory, he’s somewhat skeptical about whether it will work.
“There are concerns about at what point does drawing attention to your behaviour begin to slide into trying to force someone to behave differently,” he said.
“It goes back to the possibility of contradicting the very point of the university, which is to protect people’s abilities to responsibly pursue whatever viewpoint they hold and test them against other people’s views.”
Students at the Queen’s Journal, the independent student newspaper, called the approach “lacklustre” and warned in a editorial that facilitators might risk hostility or stifling meaningful discussion if their peers feel cornered.
– The Canadian Press
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.