On Accountability

It is hard not to feel optimistic at St. Michael’s. New professors and new courses are helping to reawaken student interest and enthusiasm. Places in Principal Randy Boyagoda’s Gilson Seminar on Faith and Ideas, which reimagines what a first-year seminar can and should be, were harder to obtain than for any other similar course across the U of T network. For their part, our new professors are developing exciting program ideas. These include a new approach to studying the global impact of Marshall McLuhan’s work, encouraging students to trace the reverberations of McLuhan’s teaching from his interactions with students on the St. Mike’s campus in decades past, to his influence on the creative communities of today’s Silicon Valley. Our new teachers have also proposed engaging students in a rich, interdisciplinary study of mediaeval Celtic art, language and culture, an intellectual journey with, if our plans come to fruition, something of a real pilgrimage built into it.

We’re also directing new resources to enrich student life. We’re consulting closely with community members, starting with our students, on plans to renew and refurbish Brennan hall. A complete, student-focussed renewal of the Registrar’s office will be at the heart of this.

I was also delighted to meet with the new SMCSU administration to offer support and my commitment to close and regular communications. We’ve hired new people for our student life portfolio, and committed ourselves to creating new opportunities for mentoring and coaching student leaders. We’re off to a great start with the new SMCSU team.

So it was with a heavy heart that I read a recent piece in the Varsity about an alleged lack of accountability at the U of T’s federated universities. Trinity and Victoria can and should speak for themselves, but the faults attributed to St. Michael’s, and to me personally, require an answer from me.

Believe me, I don’t take this up lightly or with much enthusiasm.  But I do need to speak up because the most recent Varsity article picks up and repeats some mischaracterizations that have been in the air since the summer. If they remain unchallenged, the danger is that they will be accepted as true, and important progress that we’ve made over the last year or so will be put at risk.

I should note that I tried to correct the record via a brief letter to the editors of the Varsity, but they declined to print what I submitted.

My concerns relate to the two main points that the article tries to make about my response to persistent problems at the highest levels of SMCSU. The first concern is that the Varsity article, like other recent communications on this subject, presents the problems as solely having to do with financial mismanagement and malfeasance. The Varsity piece speaks of “administrative misconduct”.

We should pause here and acknowledge that gross financial mismanagement, abuse of authority and theft are seriously wrong and victimize the vast majority of our hard-working, fee-paying students. This in itself would, in my view, be sufficient to warrant some form of intervention by responsible and accountable university administrators.

But what the Varsity piece and several widely circulated articles and letters since the summer fail to mention are the deeper and far more worrying revelations of bullying and harassment that were part of SMCSU orientation (read “hazing”) ceremonies for senior leaders. Sadly, if not surprisingly, these sessions targeted vulnerable young women and students who were considered overly religious or otherwise too conservative. This was not a secret, having been brought to light and made public in the wake of the financial investigation. Failing to acknowledge that this, too, was part of the problem is misleading and, frankly, worrying.

Let’s be clear: we were dealing with a very serious problem that had been part of the culture in SMCSU’s senior leadership ranks for a decade or more. These problems disadvantaged the vast majority of our students and, far worse, actually endangered some of those who had volunteered for student government.

My second concern relates to the persistent allegation, also widely circulated since the summer, that I subsequently branded all students as guilty of malfeasance and (I will get back to this) of “Islamophobia”. On the contrary, I have from my earliest public statement, described this as a failure of the university to meaningfully engage its students.

In other words, this was, in my view, a significant institutional failure. It is painful to acknowledge, but a Catholic university was, over a significant span of time, guilty of what might charitably be described as benign neglect when it came to student life.

SMCSU’s Club Nights were no secret. They were wildly popular, well attended, captured in slick SMCSU videos, and, as a result, had come to define St. Mike’s as the U of T’s “Party School”. That nobody seriously questioned how they were financed, what went on, whether student safety was adequately being addressed, or simply whether this was good for our students or our university is a question we will have to live with as an institution.

The same is true of the “retreats” attended by the entire outgoing administration and the entire incoming administration of SMCSU. In advance of each retreat the SMCSU bus filled noisily and very publicly in the heart of our campus.  But the same fairly obvious questions about whose money was being spent, just what went on at the event and, most important, whether our students were safe, went unasked and unanswered.

What should distinguish us as a Catholic University is our desire to engage our students in a conversation about what it is to be a human being fully alive. Because we care so deeply for our students, we invite them to a full, frank and respectful four-year conversation about what constitutes a full and happy life.

We were clearly failing to do this when it came to SMCSU and our student leaders. And in failing to engage them, we badly failed the student community as a whole.

The infamous episode of the Snapchat videos involved the creation of video content that was clearly offensive to Muslims. It happened off campus, but the video carried SMCSU’s name and involved some members of SMCSU.

Far from branding all students as Islamophobic, I delivered a two-part message focussed carefully on the actions of those directly involved in the video. First, I apologised sincerely to those whom the video had offended. Second, I made it clear that, as serious as the incident was, we were not about to throw those involved under the bus. As I put it in a Toronto Star article of December 6, 2016:  “these are very young people and young people sometimes make mistakes, even serious mistakes. Our job now is to work with them to make sure these mistakes don’t happen again.” One of the first things we did in the wake of the incident is organize a seminar on the responsible use of social media.

What does any of this have to do with accountability? The argument in the Varsity article seems, strangely enough, to be that holding people accountable–whether it be SMCSU’s senior leadership or the university itself–for respecting and protecting the most vulnerable members of our community is somehow a failure of accountability.

Expecting SMCSU’s leadership to embrace principles of good governance is central to my accountability to this institution and its students. So, too, is expecting the faculty and administration of the university to care enough to ensure that the problems that plagued SMCSU’s leadership culture in the past are not repeated.

I am very confident that we are now on the right track to better times. But staying there involves being honest about what we allowed to happen and being clear, truly clear, about our accountability to our students and to our institution.