RPIRG’s response to Dr. Gad Saad’s talk on Sept. 18

**The following letter was sent to the University faculty and administration responsible for proposing and organizing the talk by Dr. Gad Saad on Monday, Sept. 18. The talk was part of the University of Regina’s Deliberation and Debate series.

This letter is the latest in a thread of correspondence where we had expressed concerns about this talk.**

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Good morning all,

I am writing today to reiterate my unease with both the decision to invite Dr. Saad to speak at the University of Regina, and with the response I have received from those involved in proposing and coordinating the talk. From the sounds of it, the majority of the talks in this series so far have involved many thoughtful and engaging speakers – but for me, this one was going to, and did, miss the mark. In an announcement about the idea behind the series, President Timmons said:

“Over the past few years, however, I have watched with increasing concern the debates over free speech and academic freedom that have taken place at our University and at other campuses across North America.  I share the concern of those who believe that dialogue at our universities is becoming less civil, and of those who worry that the idea of “political correctness” can too easily be used to stifle meaningful debate.

Universities should always be places where everyone supports – and has the opportunity to participate in – impassioned and thoughtful debate on sensitive and controversial topics.   I want us to have open, civil, and robust discussion on issues that should be important to us all precisely because of their controversial nature.  The most difficult conversations are often the most important ones, and we should not shy away from them. Rather, we should participate in them whenever we can.”

This quest for open, civil, and robust discussion of controversial issues, if not planned and facilitated carefully, has the potential to be directly in conflict with the University’s own values, such as:

Inclusivity & Diversity – We are a learning community.  We value interaction between faculty members and students as the fundamental activity of the academy. We recognize and support the diversity of our students’ needs, and are inclusive of our Aboriginal, new Canadian, and international students, employees and partners. We aim to be accessible to all who wish to learn with us. We welcome the world to our campuses.”

Accountability & Well-Being – We are accountable for our performance to each other, our students, our alumni and the public. We value a safe, healthy, and supportive community.”

In the case of Dr. Saad, this conflict was brought into sharp relief. I was told that students who oppose Dr. Saad or are offended by him were welcome to attend the talk and engage in debate with him. Not everyone feels safe to do this but I asked if counseling supports could be made available – in case someone did this but needed to debrief or talk after. We were told that counseling already exists and students can seek it out if needed, but that no extra resources would be provided here as it would give the impression that the talk could cause harm. However, extra campus security was readily available last night outside the auditorium suggesting resources were made available to effectively alleviate opposition or protest but none were made to help make speaking against or challenging Dr. Saad more accessible.

In light of Dr. Saad’s talk, I want to call on the Deliberation and Debate committee and the President to resolve the following contradictions:

  • How can trans and gender diverse students feel safe and supported when someone who testified against trans rights, refers to trans men as “woman who think they’re men,” and speaks misinformation about biology (conflating gender and sex) is invited here?
  • How can the university confidently say that it is engaging in a process of Indigenization, and working towards the TRC’s Calls to Action, when it welcomes someone here who mocks and dismisses the concept of cultural appropriation? Someone who also seemed to misrepresent the story of Indigenous UBC professor Lorna June McCue, by omitting information about her case for tenure in order to imply that she was looking for a free pass?
  • How can many of our international students feel welcome here when a visiting professor is given a platform to provide opinions about the spread of political conservative Islam – opinions that are not substantiated by rigorous data – and single it out as being uniquely harmful, in a current climate of violent anti-Islam sentiments?
  • How can students working through trauma feel like their experiences are valid and that they won’t be victim blamed when they see an invited speaker has written articles misinterpreting the purpose of and deriding trigger warnings and safe spaces?

Freedom of speech is a valid topic of debate. However, I think that Saad’s talk served to validate some people who were looking for reasons to avoid working towards inclusive language and actions. One couldn’t help but notice the number of “Make America Great Again” hats that made an appearance at the lecture. I think that there are other ways to carefully consider and facilitate this discussion while still respecting and supporting student safety. There are many community organizations and individuals in Regina alone who are already doing great front line work to bridge communities and educate the public. These groups have a wealth of knowledge to share and should be supported in their work and engaged in the future about topics like this.

Failure to interrogate and reconcile this above conflict of values has meant that someone like Dr. Saad was able to be validate harmful attitudes, and also that no extra safety accommodations were made available to students – an accommodation that could make engaging with and/or challenging him more accessible. This was unfortunate. I hope that if anything, the concerns expressed about this talk can lead the University to look at and adopt more rigorous vetting and student safety policies. I look forward to hearing how the University plans to respond to this and would welcome an invitation to be part of future dialogues.

 

Krystal Lewis
Executive Director
Regina Public Interest Research Group

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