March 30, 2017

Universities have a voice

The actions of a McMaster University professor have exposed a failure on the part of Canadian universities to take a stance on issues of social and political justice.

Upon Omar Khadr’s release on bail, Dr. David Clark extended an olive branch to the 28-year-old former Guantanamo Bay resident that was promptly rescinded by the university’s administration. 

The tenured professor wrote to his university president requesting that a spot be held for Khadr, who was captured in Afghanistan and charged with war crimes at 15 years old.

The gesture was mostly symbolic — Khadr can’t leave Alberta — however Dr. Clark’s offer has a weighty sentiment behind it. It acknowledges the injustice of Khadr’s treatment by the American and Canadian governments.

Dr. Clark’s actions demonstrate the opportunity that universities have to voice their qualified support for social justice causes. It’s an opportunity that’s rarely seized.

As places of learning and discourse, universities are strategically positioned to be able to comment on the goings-on of society and politicians.

However, universities often protest that they have a responsibility to remain unbiased and apolitical. And as financial institutions, they’re generally unwilling to make statements that might alienate those of a differing opinion.

McMaster has chosen to avoid conflict by claiming neutrality and stating that their open application policy places all applicants on equal footing. But this claim presumes that all university applicants have had equal opportunity.

Khadr was denied a childhood by the combined efforts of the American and Canadian governments to label him a dangerous terrorist at 15 years old.

The actions or inactions of an institution have weight in public discourse. It’s nearly impossible for universities to remain completely neutral, as in some cases even the refusal to comment becomes an implied comment.

By remaining neutral and abstaining from the opportunity to actively remedy a social injustice, McMaster failed to acknowledge that any injustice has taken place.

Journal Editorial Board

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