Public controversy has been intense over attendance by a member of the St. F.X. faculty, Dr. Shiraz Dossa, at the Tehran conference "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision."
The fundamental disagreement is over the nature of the conference. Dr. Dossa has defended the conference as a scholarly exercise and "not a Holocaust denial conference by any stretch."
The background to the conference and the fact that a "who's who" of Holocaust revisionists and deniers from around the world were invited and given a platform for their views, to me continues to suggest a fundamentally different conclusion.
In addition to the condemnation from various world leaders, including Canada's prime minister, as of January over 30 of the world's prestigious policy and academic institutes had suspended ties with the sponsoring Iranian Institute until there was an explicit "repudiation of Holocaust denial and a return to academic standards."
In short, my desire to disassociate the university's name from any suggestion of support for the conference is founded not on a hasty or ill-informed basis, but on an assessment that elements of the conference were abhorrent.
From this starting point, we can see why the controversy has become inflamed and is moving rather slowly to resolution. Dr. Dossa argues vigorously that his right to attend the conference should be defended, and that failure to recognize and defend his scholarly decision to do so amounts to a serious offence against his academic freedom.
First a very, very important clarification. Harsh words have been flying from various quarters within and beyond the campus. However, in everything I have said as university president, I have at no time commented on Dr. Dossa's scholarship or his particular analysis of issues. Nor have I ever suggested that Dr. Dossa is a Holocaust denier. His scholarship and publication over his career show the contrary. He defends himself with vigour on this point and I agree that a number of critics have been unfair, even extreme.
A second clarification is important. The university, certainly inasmuch as I speak for it, has not denied Dr. Dossa's right to attend this or any other conference judged by him to be of a scholarly nature.
Where passions have been inflamed is this: Support for the right under academic freedom to attend the Tehran conference does not necessarily bring with it support for the decision to do so. Dr. Dossa feels passionately, according to his public statements, that his academic freedoms were infringed on because his decision to attend the conference, a scholarly gathering in his field of expertise, was not actively endorsed by the university.
This brings us to the question of whether academic freedom is operating or being oppressed in this case at St. F.X.
There are striking reasons to believe it is operating.
The faculty member has exercised his free choice to attend the conference. He has expressed his views on the nature of the conference and the issues it addressed. He has reacted to the opinions, both positive and negative, of his colleagues. He has directed some scathing criticism in the direction of university administrators and media. He has not been censured under university discipline rules, nor has his status at the university changed.
One issue raised by Dr. Dossa will illustrate the point. It concerns a petition that was circulated and signed by over 100 of his faculty colleagues. The petitioners, "while adamantly defending the academic freedom of our colleague," stated that they were "nevertheless profoundly embarrassed by his participation in the Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran …"
Dr. Dossa has wondered why this petition was "tolerated" by the university, particularly in light of his view that this description of the conference was based on ignorance. In fact, however, the existence of the petition was but another example of the very academic freedom enjoyed by Dr. Dossa. Just as Dr. Dossa had the right to speak and write freely, so too the petitioners had the right of faculty to express their opinions.
The underlying point in all of this is that academic freedom applies on all sides of an academic controversy. And this means that those who are protected and supported in the expressing of their critical and controversial views must allow that same protection and support to those who disagree with them. Dr. Dossa is right to expect the protection of his academic freedom, but as that right will also be accorded to others, he must realize that the very institution of academic freedom implies openness to criticism from others. Faculty members will use this freedom to criticize the position of other faculty members, and even administrators may be required to react to controversial opinions.
During this controversy, I have had the new experience of being publicly denounced by a member of faculty as everything from "illiterate" to being the author of "professional failure of the worst kind for a university president." It's not all that enjoyable, but it is a feature of the vibrant academic freedom which is fundamental to our university system. For that, I'll consider it important and memorable. And maybe, with effort, we will find a higher level of reconciliation.
So it should be in a free and open university environment.
Dr. Sean E. Riley is president of St. Francis Xavier University.