Opinion: McGill merits support as it navigates encampment crisis

As proud alumni, we are saddened by the escalation of events that have disrupted university life and crossed too many lines.

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As proud McGill graduates and members of the regional advisory board of McGill University in the east coast of the United States, we watched as encampments appeared at campuses across America. We have been saddened to see a similar situation unfold and escalate at McGill.

We are writing to condemn the actions of the protesters and express our support of McGill president Deep Saini, university faculty and administration as they attempt to navigate this situation while staying true to McGill’s mission of advancing learning and creating and disseminating knowledge.

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Universities are institutions of higher learning, and this learning happens not only through lectures and books but also by bringing students and academics together to exchange ideas. For many students, their university experience is the first time they will meet someone from another province, country, faith or sexual orientation. The academic setting allows them to experiment with new ideas, express themselves in new ways and make friends from all walks of life. What better way to learn?

The encampments that have appeared on campuses across North America, including McGill, threaten the very core of this academic mission and experience. They have resulted in intimidation of students and the disruption of university life. Instead of promoting an atmosphere of respectful debate and communal engagement, the encampments disturb the tranquil grounds that are intended to invigorate students and faculty.

While we recognize the right of students to express their views, even in the form of protest, we oppose aggressive actions and tactics that conflict with McGill’s code of conduct and deny the vast majority of students and faculty the rich academic experience our university has offered for over two centuries. We applaud Saini and the McGill faculty and administration for their efforts — from engaging in negotiation with the protesters to seeking legal action — in trying to resolve the numerous and complex issues created by the encampment.

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The university has, in our view, been nimble in its attention to these issues yet has remained firm in its stance that the protesters’ conduct represents an unacceptable attack on the educational principles on which McGill prides itself. We further applaud the university for working to maintain normal operations under these most difficult circumstances.

Despite the efforts of McGill’s administration, the climate on campus appears to have  worsened. Supporters of the encampment occupied the main administration building on June 6, then posted on social media an invitation to a “revolutionary youth summer program” at the encampment, with a photo of individuals holding assault rifles. Occupying university property and then offering an alternative “educational” forum while disrupting McGill’s core academic mission crosses too many lines in our view.

No one should tolerate this kind of occupation, not even a university that prides itself on decades of promoting the free and open exchange of ideas. We urge all stakeholders to support the removal of the encampment, end the intimidation and disruption on campus, and restore the academic setting that we enjoyed during our time at McGill — and that members of the incoming class rightfully expect when they arrive on campus in the fall.

We see the lack of action to restore McGill’s campus to an open, secure and safe educational environment for all not only as an assault on McGill University as a Canadian institution, but also on the underpinnings of higher education and our values as a democratic society.

Ariel J. Deckelbaum and Kathleen Servidea are members of the McGill University Regional Advisory Board, United States (East Coast). Other members contributed to this commentary. Regional advisory boards, consisting of McGill alumni and parents of current students, serve to promote the university and its initiatives in their respective regions.   

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