Message from Carleton University President Urges ‘Civility,’ Criticizes ‘Noisy Persons’

Today the President of Carleton University, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, known for distributing unsolicited poetry to Carleton staff via mass e-mails, forwarded the Carleton community a new reflection for 2017 (see below for full text).

Unfortunately, although her reflection is ostensibly intended to promote the principles of free speech in civil society, it actually reflects a rather dim view of social protest, writing:

At times we see our democratically-elected representatives unable to do the business for which they were chosen by the din of those exercising what they consider to be their right to freedom of speech. These noisy persons fail to recognize that by preventing their duly-elected representatives to carry out their mandate, they themselves are contravening the basic principle of a civil society. Worse still, they will fail to gain the ear of others because they refuse to listen themselves.
Universities must be home to civil society, welcoming free speech and allowing others to speak. We are not expected to agree with everything and everyone, but we must ensure that we do not drown out others, thus suppressing their freedom of expression.
In this year of Carleton University’s 75th anniversary, let us join together in celebrating diversity — of opinion as well as all the diverse factors which both separate us and bring us together: culture, race, religion, gender, geography, age.

First of all, we should be worried about the qualification “what they consider to be their right to freedom of speech.” This immediately indicates that there are forms of protest which she thinks are not covered by a right to speak, and this appears to be related to whether a protest is disruptive or not. Well, it seems too obvious to point out that many forms of protest are disruptive, including basically every important historical example of civil disobedience. Is the President of Carleton University taking this opportunity to issue a blanket condemnation of civil disobedience?

Second, who are these “noisy persons” that she is referring to, and what business are they disrupting? Perhaps these are the neuroscience students who are being evicted from their facilities and who are petitioning the university in an attempt to save their research? Or maybe she is referring to the widespread community opposition to the recently-adopted Sexual Violence Policy?

Third, the President’s call for “celebrating diversity … of opinion” reveals the administration’s operating principle: tolerate dissenting voices if necessary, but do not extend this to diversity of decision-making power. Indeed, the University is far from a democracy; it is run by a senior administration unresponsive to student and worker concerns, and a Board of Governors that is structurally designed to prevent student and community voices from being heard.

Students and workers have learned that the university rarely takes their voices into consideration without disruptive, noisy, and relentless protest. It is this history of activism at Carleton that we should be celebrating as we commemorate its 75th year.


Edit: Appropriately enough, in an article out today, Ian Lee, a member of the Carleton University Board of Governors, made the following comments:

I don’t think we are in Canada where we turn the decision making of any major corporation, whether it’s at Carleton University, Shopify or CTV News, over to a small number of unelected, unaccountable social activists.

This seems to typify the attitude of the decision-makers at Carleton. This is certainly a backwards logic, since those activists he derides are often the democratically elected representatives of their campus constituencies, while the overwhelmingly unelected members of the Board of Governors are not accountable to anyone but themselves.


Full text of the Message from the President, “A Reflection for 2017”

To all Members of the Carleton Community,
“People are born free, and everywhere are enchained.” Rousseau thus opens his Du Contrat social and goes on to illustrate how property ownership led, in early civilizations, to laws protecting possession and their enforcement.
This is a fine thesis but one might as well argue that we are NEVER free because we come into the world attached to another by an umbilical cord. We depend on others for care. We cannot survive without support and with our survival comes a reciprocal responsibility to aid others. Because we cannot live alone (there are few totally independent hermits), we need rules concerning relationships just as we do for property ownership. These are the rules of civility. They evolve with society. For example, the weather partially dictates our choice of apparel. Science, technology and industry make fabrics available. Customs and traditions reflect different value systems. These are interpreted by weavers and designers. In North America today we have the luxury of choice. While we cannot forget the temperature outside, we have great freedom of choice in garments.
Emanating from the human condition are also the rules of responsibility to return care to others. Humane care and charity are noble markers of the human spirit. The United Nations has stated that the love for children and their welfare must surely unite people in every culture around the world. This is a cornerstone for peace and for the enabling of all to live out the seasons of their lives without fear. It is also the foundation of religions and social organizations, of civil society groups and worldwide organizations that aid people in need of basic life support, education and employment.
In Rousseau’s social contract, one voluntarily exchanges certain freedoms to gain protection. One might offer traffic laws today as an illustration. We accept stopping at red lights in order to proceed without harm at the green signal. We recognize that it is better to wait for a few minutes than to risk an accident. We make such rules to protect the general population. Anyone driving a vehicle is required to respect these laws and we engage police officers to enforce the rules for the benefit of all.
If we consider that we are not born independent and that we need the help of others to exist, then the social contract becomes a different kind of exchange. We agree to respect others to ensure our own dignity. We grant ourselves freedom of speech by agreeing to allow others to speak. We agree to civil behavior on condition that we are, in turn, treated with civility. In principle, this system of mutual respect reflects the values of the society and becomes part of a culture that will lead to understanding. It is that special culture we like to define as Canadian.
We have all been in a busy parking lot and have finally found a spot which is about to become available. We put on our directional blinkers and wait while the people settle into the vehicle and start the engine. As they pull back, this little sports car zooms in from the other direction and careens into the spot. We sigh and vow that the next spot will be ours and ours alone! We prowl angrily about the lot and seize the next vacancy. On the other hand, when someone graciously waves you into a spot, you smile and do the same for the next person. We always hear about the people who pay for the next coffee in line, a gift nearly infallibly transmitted to the next person.
Every citizen has the possibility of volunteering or giving. Not everyone does so, but those who do realize that they gain more than they give. They learn more than they teach. They receive not only the satisfaction of having done something inherently good and worthwhile, they also gain the warmth of a smile and the knowledge that someday, someone may do the same for them.
Violence and extreme incivility are indeed the subject of laws forbidding them. Charity is encouraged through tax laws. But civility and caring are not generally the subject of legislation. We depend on the pressure of peers, conscience, education and training to transmit, encourage and enforce civility and charity.
At times the examples we are offered in media and social media seem to negate the values derived from respect for self and others. Interviews and panels rapidly decline into shouting matches. The Tower of Babel might well be the theme for reality TV. Debates become not the homes of the flowers of rhetoric but the theatres of insult and derision. At times we see our democratically-elected representatives unable to do the business for which they were chosen by the din of those exercising what they consider to be their right to freedom of speech. These noisy persons fail to recognize that by preventing their duly-elected representatives to carry out their mandate, they themselves are contravening the basic principle of a civil society. Worse still, they will fail to gain the ear of others because they refuse to listen themselves.
Universities must be home to civil society, welcoming free speech and allowing others to speak. We are not expected to agree with everything and everyone, but we must ensure that we do not drown out others, thus suppressing their freedom of expression.
In this year of Carleton University’s 75th anniversary, let us join together in celebrating diversity — of opinion as well as all the diverse factors which both separate us and bring us together: culture, race, religion, gender, geography, age.
Pico Iyer, in Tropical Classical, writes that all human beings are linked by the certainty of aging and death. We are reminded, no matter where we reside, by the passing of time, days, seasons and years of our essential fragility. We universally share the knowledge of our frailty, our common fate. Despite science and no matter our belief in eternity, we cannot deny the fact that our lives as we know them will end. We naturally share the desire to grasp a tiny bit of immortality through our accomplishments, which will be remembered by future generations.
Humankind is joined both by frailty at birth and the inability to escape our physical demise. We require help to exist and we can, by working together, create a strong legacy for future generations. In Shelley’s Ozymandias, we are reminded that the greatest rulers and kingdoms are worn by the desert winds, becoming dust, necessarily being one day forgotten. Voltaire, on the other hand, upheld the values of philosophy and science. Ideas can change the lives of people and alter the course of history. If we are to create new concepts, to be creative and ingenious, we need to listen to others to learn from them and we need time to think and reflect in peace.
In Canada’s 150th anniversary, let us join in making our nation, known the world over for our values of sharing and caring, sustainable and our gift to future generations.
Roseann O’Reilly Runte
President, Carleton University
[January 12, 2017]