Intergroup Dialogue Program cancelled

Program termination one of three short-term suggestions outlined in panel assessment report

Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane says the report recommended the University make sure any program that emanates from the Student Affairs office be closely tied to the academic operation of the University.
Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane says the report recommended the University make sure any program that emanates from the Student Affairs office be closely tied to the academic operation of the University.

The University has moved to immediately terminate the Intergroup Dialogue Program following a recommendation from a report assessing its usefulness in residences.

The program, created by Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Arig Girgrah, consisted of six trained student intergroup facilitators who lived in residence and whose mandate was to engage students living in residence in discussions and activities related to diversity.

The report was written and submitted to Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane by a panel made up of Rector Leora Jackson, professor emeritus John Meisel and law alumnus, former MPP for Kingston and the Islands, former Ontario cabinet minister and former Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Keith Norton.

The panel’s report released three recommendations to Deane: that the Intergroup Dialogue program be terminated, that the intergroup facilitators complete their year’s engagement in the residences by generally assisting dons and that alternative means of confronting diversity issues in residences be explored. Deane said the panel recommended the Intergroup Dialogue Program’s termination because the controversy surrounding the program had raised questions about its continuing viability for the University.

The panel was created in December to perform an early assessment of the program at Deane’s request.

“They identified a couple of issues, one of the principal ones being the possibility that such a program might create an atmosphere that people might feel constraints on their freedom of speech,” Deane said. “It’s not that there was any snooping; it’s not that any of the facilitators engaged in any activities that were complained about; it’s that given the support that the panel felt for the goals of the program, they believed some changes to the program or different approach would be recommended.”

Deane told the Journal in November that the program was designed as a one-year pilot with evaluation methods built-in at the end of that year to decide whether to continue it and, if so, what changes need to be made.

The report acknowledges the program was the subject of widespread criticism by national media outlets such as the Globe and Mail, who wrote about the program in a Nov. 20 editorial, saying “The nanny state has hired the KGB” and calling the intergroup facilitators “spies.” Deane said it’s obvious that a program that attained so much negativity would find it difficult to achieve its goals.

“I wouldn’t suggest that this is the only reason [for its termination],” he said. “Members of the panel, while strongly supporting the goals of the program, were concerned about the idea of such a thing.”

Deane said an important point raised in the panel’s report said that if someone wanted to develop a new academic program, there are avenues by which the University explores, questions and tests it before it’s decided it can be offered.

“I think they were recommending there be some similar process for these Student Affairs initiatives—not necessarily that they should go through same procedure, but there should be some means by which an idea can be tested, explored and refined before being implemented.”

Deane said the report recommended the University make sure any program emanating from the Student Affairs office be closely tied to the academic operation of the University.

“That is something that I’ve argued for repeatedly over the last couple of years. In dealing with these issues, it’s not desirable to build programs and units isolated from our academic department,” he said. “It’s desirable to measure that if we are trying to eliminate problems of intolerance we do so in a way that makes powerful use of and is parallel to the academic considerations.”

Deane said he’ll be looking into ways in which the processes of Student Affairs can be looked at in terms of the academic operations of the University.

“There’s an important discussion to be had about that,” he said. “Exactly how that should work is something we will work on over the next little while.” Deane said this experience has been a lesson learned for the University.

“I think the lesson one can learn from this is that a more elaborate process of consultation would have the effect of testing an idea thoroughly before it is implemented. It’s an important lesson for the University—one of the strongest recommendations in the report.”

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