Renewed controversy as dust settles on GSU divestment meeting disruption

Angela Hildyard, University of Toronto vice-president, human resources & equity, has issued an administrative response following a disruption at last week’s divestment campaign petition launch at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

The event, hosted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) ad hoc committee of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), was interrupted by members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), an off-campus group with no official affiliation on campus.

Around 30 faculty and staff signed a letter to Hildyard shortly after the event to express their concerns over how the disruption was handled. 

The event was officially cancelled by the administration, but continued after relocationg upstairs.

Disappointment over response

Jens Hanssen, associate professor of history and near and Middle Eastern civilizations, said that the signatories received a response on November 6, nearly 10 days after the letter to Hildyard was sent.

In the letter, Hildyard referred to the GSU event in question as one organized by an “autonomous student society” — one that is not organised, sponsored, or endorsed by the University of Toronto. 

“Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech are core values for any university in a democratic society,” Hildyard said in the letter.

Hanssen took issue with the response, calling the letter a “boiler-plate” piece of writing. “We are in fact asking the administration to enforce the very things that she has told us they stand for, and they haven’t… It’s clearly disappointing,” Hanssen said.

Hanssen added that Hilyard’s letter supposedly failed to address the concerns put forward by their letter — particularly their request that the university “ensure that the responsible individuals, and the group they belong to [the JDL] are banned from campus.”

“This is not about academic freedom or inclusiveness. If you have a group that — maybe not in this country, but in the United States — has a criminal record, then it’s not about open dialogue anymore,” Hanssen said. “If they were a student group, then maybe they would have some say, but they’re not.” 

According to Meir Weinstein, a spokesperson for the Canadian branch of the JDL, the group had every right to be there. “[T]he people in attendance included students and people who weren’t students and the composition of our group is exactly the same,” Weinstein said. 

Weinstein added that students from the University of Toronto are part of the JDL — although the group does not have a recognized branch within the university.

In regards to Campus Police’s involvement, Weinstein said that he didn’t think there was much of a disruption at all. “If anything it was an over-reaction. There were one or two people that took a strong exception to some of the terminologies which were being used… and then after that some of the people on the BDS side went ballistic,” he said. 

Future plans 

Hanssen said that the signatories may draft a letter of clarification to the administration or try to “dig deeper into some of these links to the policies that this letter provides, ask the administration to live up to its letter and encourage, and promote what we’re doing because its so crucial to a university.”

Faraz Vahid Shahidi, a doctoral candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said that the committee would not allow the disruption to interrupt the divestment campaign.

“In the mean time, the campaign is certainly looking for more people to sign the petition, support the campaign, and do work within their own departments to consistently spread awareness about the campaign,” he said. 

As of press time, university administration did not respond to requests for comment.

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