As a former rector of Queen’s University, I write to condemn the recent conduct of Nick Day. In his piece, “A response to Michael Ignatieff on his statement about Israeli Apartheid Week,” published Wednesday on Rabble.ca, Day expresses his views in his capacity as rector, the elected representative of all Queen’s students.
Whatever my personal opinion on his subject, Day misused his title and attributed his personal beliefs to the student body. These are grave abuses of the office of rector.
As the third officer of Queen’s University, the rector is to serve as the students’ voice within the university administration. The rector’s primary duty is to accurately communicate students’ perspectives and interests to university administrators and governance bodies. As do all student representatives, a rector inherits Queen’s students’ trust that they will express their constituents’ consensus on a given issue.
Admittedly, one cannot always identify a clear student consensus. Any community features a diversity of opinion. Indeed, such plurality is essential for a university community. However, a student representative must consult widely and faithfully to best discern the views of her or his constituency. Moreover, a representative must limit the views that she or he expresses under the mantle of elected office to those within the office’s purview.
In absence of a clear consensus, a representative should lead with good judgment, but must do so within the limits of his or her office. For instance, when voting on tuition increases, the rector seeks to best reflect the interests of Queen’s students. Not every student will agree with a rector’s position. Yet, to vote on this matter is an explicit function of the office.
Day’s recent pronouncements not only exceed any assigned duty of the rector, but also misrepresent his own views as those of his constituency.
The rector’s role is about the governance of Queen’s University. No aspect of his rectorship requires writing missives to federal politicians, pronouncing on foreign affairs.
Day is free to present his views once he departs his role, speaking as an independent citizen. However, by signing his letter as rector, Day’s conduct trespassed the bounds of his office.
Moreover, Day attributed these opinions to the students he represents. He did so with the knowledge that these views did not reflect any consensus amongst his constituents. Being rector imparts the privilege to speak on students’ behalf. To knowingly misrepresent your constituents’ views is a betrayal of their trust and a breach of a rector’s foremost duty.
The rectorship is not a soapbox. The role is not to be flaunted to grab media attention. Without his title, Day’s remarks would have been largely ignored. By signing as Rector, Day got noticed. But with that signature comes the responsibility to speak faithfully on behalf of Queen’s students.
Instead, Day deliberately exploited his title to publicize his personal political opinions.
Of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a legitimate subject for debate within the academy. A university must afford wide freedom to vigorously discuss such issues. However, serving as a student representative constrains an individual’s latitude to pronounce on such matters.
Statements from the pulpit of an elected office convey the heft of your constituency, particularly when your title is explicitly attached. Indeed, Day specifically invoked his constituency in his letter, claiming “to represent the approximately 20,000 students of Queen’s University.”
When you speak as rector, you must speak with fidelity to the community you serve, believing that your statements truly reflect the community’s views and interests. If Day honestly believed his statements reflected a consensus amongst Queen’s students, his judgment is dangerously unsound. If Day knowingly misrepresented his views as those of his constituents, he abused his office.
While this indictment of Day’s conduct is indirectly triggered by the subject of his letter, my personal opinion on the topic is irrelevant. What matters is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply divisive for the Queen’s community.
On this subject, there is no consensus view. Day’s pronouncements are not abusive because of their subject. Rather, he pretended to speak for his constituents under the mantle of Rector, and instead, advanced his personal views on a highly contentious subject, unrelated to his office. That is an abuse.
It would be similarly egregious if a rector had advocated, as rector, for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or taken a side in the recent Sri Lankan conflict. These issues should be deliberated in classrooms and campus cafés with the mutual respect that is the hallmark of academic inquiry.
Yet, when an issue is clearly controversial and far outside any function for which the representative was elected, it is unacceptable for a representative to announce her or his view as that of the community.
Day’s conduct is unworthy of the office of rector. In place of his duties, he acted self-servingly. Similarly, he and others may attempt to appropriate future proceedings, claiming Day to be persecuted for his beliefs.
However, this is simply distracting and self-aggrandizing. When elected, students did not give him a mandate to pronounce on Middle Eastern politics. He forfeits his office not because of his beliefs but because he misused his position.
We elect the rector to represent Queen’s students on matters relating to the governance and administration of Queen’s University.
By abusing his title, he betrayed this trust. Nick Day should apologize and resign, or Queen’s students should immediately seek his removal.
Grant Bishop was Rector of Queen’s University from 2004 until 2006.
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