York University says it will begin a process that could lead to the school withdrawing its recognition of its student unions in response to a controversial statement the groups issued about this month’s Hamas attacks in Israel.
In a written notice Friday, the university’s administration said it suspects the student unions have breached their responsibilities under a university regulation, by failing to act in an open, accessible, democratic and non-discriminatory manner.
The university is calling on the unions to retract and apologize for the statement, and it is asking the unions’ executives to resign. If the student groups don’t comply and instead deny that a breach of responsibilities has occurred, administrators will begin a process to determine if sanctions are merited. The most severe sanction would be withdrawal of recognition, the university said.
York issued its notice after a week of pressure on university administrators from the Ontario government, which has been calling on schools to hold student groups accountable for their statements on the conflict in Israel and Gaza. At the same time, the organization representing Ontario’s university faculty has warned that the government’s monitoring of campus speech poses a threat to academic freedom.
The three York student organizations – the York Federation of Students, the York University Graduate Student Association and the Glendon College Student Union, each of which represents a different student population – issued a joint statement shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. The statement made no mention of Israeli victims and described what had occurred as an act of Palestinian resistance against “so-called Israel.”
York University’s administration, in its own statement last week, condemned what the student unions had said, suggesting that it was a justification of “violence against unarmed civilians.” The university called on the organizations’ leaders to issue a retraction and affirm their commitment to non-violence, anti-discrimination and repairing the hurt they had caused to their members. The student unions have not publicly responded to that call.
The Globe attempted to contact representatives of all three student unions, but phone and e-mail messages were not returned.
York student leaders are not the only ones who have drawn heightened scrutiny over the past two weeks. The student union at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus published a statement that was also largely silent about Israeli casualties. It called Gaza “an open-air prison” and said the conflict was about the right to resist an “apartheid regime.”
Both statements were met with widespread outrage, including from Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities.
Ms. Dunlop has called the statements appalling. She met this week with the presidents of the province’s publicly funded colleges and universities and told them they had a responsibility to address the statements and hold people accountable.
In the case of the York student unions, she urged the university administration to investigate and, if necessary, launch non-academic misconduct investigations of the student union executives.
Speaking in the legislature at Queen’s Park this week, Ms. Dunlop said, “many of our institutions have failed us.”
She also read into the parliamentary record the names of 17 elected student union executives at York and the University of Toronto Mississauga who had signed the letters. Ms. Dunlop said she felt it was important that the names be recorded in Hansard.
The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations said it was alarmed by what it had heard from the minister.
In a statement, OCUFA said the government’s position threatens academic freedom and is antithetical to the academic mission of universities. It added that in the aftermath of the attacks some faculty and students had been threatened and harassed, and it called on the government to ensure that all faculty and students, regardless of their views, are safe to speak, learn and research on campus.
Jim Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the government’s reaction shows a lack of commitment to the free speech principles it enshrined when it was first elected in 2018.
At that time, a period of heightened concern over what some saw as limits on conservative speech on campus, the Progressive Conservative government passed regulations requiring schools to adopt free speech policies in line with a 2014 statement from the University of Chicago. That set of principles calls for the “broadest possible latitude” to speak and write.