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University of Ottawa gets an F in Coulter-culture 101

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter speaks in Calgary on Thursday.

Larry MacDougall

Put to the test, the University of Ottawa failed.

Any encounter with Ann Coulter is bound to be a messy one for an institution that champions respect and civility. But the decision to warn off the right-wing American provocatrix with high-minded hints about hate-crime prosecution, as the school's provost tried to do last week, has turned out be even more troublesome.

The Coulter affair has revealed a worrying discrepancy between what universities practise and what they preach. In the classroom, professors talk about the paramount importance of free speech, with all that noble rhetoric about why wild and disagreeable ideas must be defended to the point of death. But outside class, the nervous administrators' rules take over: Be nice, and please give no offence.

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Can a university turn its core values on and off like this? "It's the job of the university to ensure security, but you can't protect people from uncomfortable points of view," says University of Toronto philosophy professor Wayne Sumner. "It's a rough-and tumble world out there, and you have to get used to the fact that there are ideas you're going to hate."

Ann Coulter represents the rough-and-tumble at its most challenging, at least by the rules of the university classroom where 18-year-olds are taught that you don't have to be mean to be keen. But the shock pundit's taunts are only the latest in a series of confrontations that have made universities look hypocritical in their commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

The most notorious was the feud between Muslim and Jewish students at Montreal's Concordia University in 2002: A speech by Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu had to be cancelled after a demonstration turned violent. Concordia's reputation among applicants and donors took an immediate hit. But within the university community, the cultural conflict was even more troubling because of the question it raised about the very ideals of the university: How do you balance free speech, political engagement and a commitment to multicultural tolerance without sacrificing institutional integrity?

Concordia found ways to lower the temperature of the political debate without suppressing the warring ideas. Moderate students were encouraged to take a more active role in student government, in-your-face displays that once provoked violent demonstrations were shifted to a more subdued location, and sign rules were instituted to keep the verbal jousting in balance.

And yet according to students, the debate hasn't been stifled. "It's a lot more developed and mature now," says Abdullah Husen, president of the Muslim Students Association. "…It's a Canadian value, not to be quite so adamant about spreading your views."

A similar approach has been tried at Toronto's York University, where the so-called Israeli Apartheid Week became a head-to-head struggle of Coulteresque proportions. Palestinian and Jewish students separately complained that they found the university environment was becoming hostile and intimidating. In response, the university created a committee on campus dialogue whose task has been to defuse the confrontations and re-channel the antagonistic energy into public events where the issues can be debated with a classroom level of mutual respect.

"The controversy hasn't been sidestepped," says Susan Dimock, a philosophy professor and member of the dialogue committee. "We think we've met it head-on in a way that's more in keeping with the values of the university."

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Assessing the Ann Coulter situation in the same light, she thinks the best idea for members of the University of Ottawa would have been to let Ms. Coulter speak and then conduct a debriefing session immediately afterwards at the same location for students to express their views.

"The ideal of the university is to show that creative learning is not just something found in the classroom - you have to take your skills and apply them everywhere," she said.

Still, this encouragement to face up to your intellectual adversaries goes against the natural tendency of university administrators to pursue a pre-emptive risk-avoidance strategy - from a fear of litigation when a speaker's visit turns ugly, or an aversion to the kind of human conflict that will make the university look unappealing to outsiders.

Their caution disturbs James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "I get nervous with all the talk of creating a respectful environment," he says. "With the corporatization of the university, we've developed this notion of the student as customer, where we're supposed to make them feel comfortable and provide a civil workplace."

In dealing with a disconcerting event like the appearance of an Ann Coulter, the protective administrators should back off, he says. "Our job is to help students understand that a situation like this is really what university is all about - and not to see her as an interloper in our comfortable intellectual world."

With a report from Les Perreaux

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