Letters: An open letter to Judith Woodsworth 

On Sunday, August 23, 2009, the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research organized a conference at Concordia on the theme “Israel on Campus: Defending Our Universities”. According to the publicity for the conference the goals were:

1. to bring a powerful analytic focus to bear on the mounting threat to academic freedom and free inquiry represented by the growth of antisemitism, masquerading as anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism, on our campuses, and

2. to develop, on the basis of a clear set of informing principles, a “Campus Defense Council” tasked with an ongoing, coordinated, and persistent international campaign to “take back the campus”.

Although I personally strongly disagree with both their analysis and position on the issues surrounding the Middle East, I acknowledge the organizers’ right to organize a conference. This is within the tradition of academic freedom and debate, a value long upheld on university campuses. The same principles defend the rights of pro-Palestinian groups.

However, it is the differences that raise concern. First, you were one of the speakers. This is not a neutral academic conference but one that is arguing for one side in the context of a politically charged environment. Your presence raises questions about the neutrality of the university on this issue. More importantly, the conference was held in an atmosphere that is in flagrant violation of academic freedom, particularly for a conference held in Concordia facilities. It was not an open conference. Not everyone who may have wanted to attend could attend. What message to the wider community is presented when one group, highly partisan on one side of a hot political issue has its conference opened by the university’s president? Does your presence at the conference sanction the way it was organized? What does this mean for university policy on openness and academic freedom? I want to remind you that all events during Israel Apartheid Week this winter were open to the public. I would appreciate an answer to these questions and I would like to be reassured that this conference does not represent a basic shift in university policy.

Eric Shragge, Associate Professor
Principal, School of Community and Public Affairs

Dear Professor Shragge,

Thank you for expressing your concerns to the President.

The university policy regarding academic freedom, free speech and debate has not changed. The university encourages reasoned, civil discussion and debate within the framework of applicable law and the security of the Concordia community.

President Woodsworth was asked to welcome the guests to CIJR’s event as president of the university. She fulfills this function at numerous events throughout the year organized by a wide variety of groups and organizations. She was not a participant but accepted an invitation from a colleague of some 40 years to welcome the attendees to Concordia. In her welcome speech she reiterated Concordia's commitment to open debate and discussion on campus, stressing that discourse must be civil and respectful as outlined in our Code of Rights and Responsibilities.

As far as the Office of the President knows, the CIJR conference was open to anyone who registered, but points out that the event was organized by CIJR and not by the university. As such, I suggest that you contact the organizers directly with any access-related questions you may have.

Yours truly,
Jonathan Levinson, Chief of Staff


Concordia University