Skip to main content

University of Toronto president Robert Birgeneau laid a verbal reproach yesterday on a computer-science professor who publicly mocked a memorial to slain women.

Charles Rackoff, a U of T professor since 1974, likened this week's memorial service for the 14 women shot or stabbed in the 1989 Montreal massacre by Marc Lépine to a Ku Klux Klan propaganda campaign. He made the comparison in a widely distributed e-mail to faculty and students at Erindale College, a U of T branch in Mississauga.

Given the university's values as a bastion of free speech, Dr. Birgeneau said, the university could not punish him.

However, with the university in the midst of a $1-billion fundraising campaign, Dr. Birgeneau made it clear that free speech applies equally to school presidents.

"I just thought it was sad for this person," he said, describing his initial reaction. "As soon as you see something like this you think, 'What happened in this person's life that would make him respond like that?' "

He said he didn't know the answer to that question. "I've never met him. I know absolutely nothing about him. My hope is that people will just dismiss him as some bizarre extreme element."

Prof. Rackoff did not respond yesterday to telephone messages left at his office and his home. His voice-mail at home suggests he takes a certain pride in tilting at convention.

"The following recorded message has been approved by the national commission for the hearing-impaired: NO ONE CAN COME TO THE PHONE NOW. LEAVE YOUR MESSAGE AT THE TONE!"

He has a home page on the Internet that gives his academic background, but it says little about his personal life. He was born and raised in New York City, and studied as an undergraduate and graduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research interest is in "computational complexity."

His e-mail, sent out in reply to a message about a memorial service, said women's groups want to use the deaths as an excuse to promote an extreme left-wing, feminist agenda. "It is no different, and no more justified, than when organizations such as the Klu-Klux-Klan [sic]use the murder of a white person by a black person as an excuse to promote their agenda."

Patrick Johnston, the head of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, said he thought the public would treat Prof. Rackoff's comments as an isolated incident that would not affect its willingness to open their wallets to the U of T.

If he were giving advice to Dr. Birgeneau, he said, he would recommend a quick response that walked the fine line between a commitment to free speech and distancing the university from Prof. Rackoff's message.

Dr. Birgeneau did just that, giving notice on the university's Web site that he found Prof. Rackoff's e-mail "repugnant," and reminding people that he spoke at a campus memorial service, calling the Montreal massacre "the single most horrific act in the history of Canadian higher education."

Dr. Birgeneau has voiced strong views on equity issues since joining the university this year. For instance, he angered faculty members of the physics department by rehiring Kin-Yip Chun and giving him a large research budget, even though the Ontario Human Rights Commission had rejected Dr. Chun's discrimination complaint against the university.

"I've been very vocal about equity and inclusion issues," Dr. Birgeneau said when interviewed. "There's an element of society that that has made unhappy. They may not give us money now -- maybe I don't want their money.

"There's another element that is supportive, and very generous. Maybe these things balance out," he said.

Although women are easily in the majority on Canadian campuses, comprising 56 per cent of undergraduates and slightly less than half of graduate students, computer science is still a male bastion.

At the U of T, just 16 per cent of students with a major or minor in the discipline are women, and just 21 per cent of the faculty are women.