Power, Public Accountability, and a Leadership Opportunity at the University of Toronto

Accountability is How We Support Each Other

This post is laid out as follows. And it comes with the “I’m ragged, truly, and writing this fast” preface — please let me know about errors, and also on anything content wise, as ever.

  1. Background on the University of Toronto censure. I didn’t know what censure was either. You should. You’ll likely be grateful, as I am, for the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the broader academic community’s recent actions. They have organized to stand up and call out what the University of Toronto has done wrong in terms of academic freedom, human rights, and governance. It matters to everyone. It matters particularly to those of you living in Toronto. When institutions operate in our names, which the University of Toronto does, we have a shared obligation to either admit we allow it or challenge it. I don’t believe most people in Toronto would be comfortable with what the University of Toronto has done in their names, if they knew about it. We need to hold it accountable.
  2. Power, Public Accountability, and Public Sector Leadership. A few reasons that the University of Toronto can and should change its path. The main things that keep me troubled about this, particularly in this political moment.
  3. Most important part: a request for you to support the CensureUofT campaign by writing a letter to the president of the University, Meric Gertler — president @ utoronto. ca — And a request to talk to anyone about the censure — friends, family, community groups you’re part of, city councillors. write about it. share information about it. follow the campaign on twitter to stay up to date on articles, news, actions, pledge signing, etc.

Background

The thing about accountability is not to expect perfection, it’s the opposite. It’s to expect and plan for errors and changes in decision-making. Because humans. Because habits. Because history. It’s about paths to resolve errors or wrongdoing and to keep moving forward together too. This second part is why it’s so fundamental to shared governance. Accountability systems protect us from ourselves and allow us to grow. To stay together through hard things, including political things. We all need accountability mechanisms in our lives, every single one of us. In the university world, censure is one of these mechanisms.

I didn’t know what censure was a few months ago. Here’s a good background piece in the New Yorker on what is happening at U of T with the censure. The Censure UofT site has a tonne of great resources to learn more. Here is key background from the Censure UofT site:

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has taken the rare and serious decision to censure the University of Toronto. CAUT has determined that the University’s administration failed “to resolve concerns regarding academic freedom stemming from a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law”. Relying on undisputed evidence contained in a report by Mr. Thomas Cromwell, CAUT concluded that a donor/judge’s objections to Dr. Valentina Azarova, based on her scholarship on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories, influenced the University’s decision to rescind an offer of a position as Director of the International Human Rights Program.”

Power, Accountability, and Public Sector Leadership

There is a texture to what is happening at the University of Toronto at this moment so familiar to anyone that knows this city. It plays out through their official communications but more importantly through their actions and inactions. It’s a failure to move through a misstep with grace. We, all of us, desperately need to see power move with grace in this moment.

I want to preface this part by saying that there are two core elements of the censure: one that relates to academic freedom and the other to collegiate governance. I don’t know much at all about academic freedom or the administration of universities, so I’m not going write about them in specific. These few thoughts are at a more general level. I cannot recommend enough to read the excellent writing on both of these topics available through the UofTCensure twitter feed and site. I also want to thank every writer and academic and lawyer that has shared their thoughts on the matter to date. It has been an education and a half for me.

The part I want to draw attention to is not what has happened to date, but what continues to happen today. U of T is digging in and defending its process instead of showcasing what public sector leadership can look like.

We need leadership that shows people the incredible power in respecting the efforts of those that show up to tell you something is wrong. To know and appreciate that this effort to hold the university accountable is happening because people care deeply about it. To see and understand this as a core strength and sign of health in a democracy. Many of us see dwindling places of promise for hard political conversations and want to protect the university as an important place for them.

The university could stop any day now with seeing the censure as something to “manage” through public relations and a report that borrows on a former judge’s reputation for credibility and legitimacy. These are not tactics of a credible public actor. These are not tools available to the general public. They signal so much of the problem with how certain institutions wield power in matters of public discourse. They do it from a place of inequity. They lean into inequity to hold onto existing power.

The university could stop with this avenue entirely — it’s a terrible habit of so many currently in power, governments included. It’s one that works against the idea of genuine and rich discourse, something so vital to democracy. It doesn’t have to be like this, to play things out in the press and bet on getting away with things because not enough people are watching. I am concerned that people with so much power continue to default to these reductive modes of public engagement with the very people they are supposed to represent.

We need to move out of these public relations arenas where communications are used in troubling ways and begin again in a place that understands the source of objection as one of care. To understand it as an effort to retain and grow public trust in the value and worth of this public institution. To know that when that opportunity is offered it should be met with genuine engagement not public relations. Is the university in so much trouble for money that this is what they think defensible trade-offs are and that this is fine? If so let’s all talk about that together, because here we do need to talk about history, the institution, and what it means when we all let it get to this point. There are more of these I’m sure. Let’s put them on the table.

I know the president of the University of Toronto exists in the same world as some of the professional urban planners that wonder aloud about whether or not they’re doing enough in this moment. I think this is another good question and point to highlight — professional associations wield power they can use to support and defend human rights. They have the stamina and the support, though their people, to document, to share, to tell the story, to check in, to consider what to fix, to consider how to move forward from here. Many have offered paths. Thank you to everyone who has shown up in this way.

So to the president of the university, I would ask him to consider the university’s motto, which I looked up this morning. The university’s motto was quite a beautiful surprise to me. I’ll wait for someone to write to me and spoil it, hasty references without context are usually a bad idea. But back to it — the motto is: “VELUT ARBOR ӔVO (Latin for “As a tree, over time”).

Inherent in this motto is a commitment to growth, change, and adaptation. To grow together we sometimes have to watch each other make mistakes, then watch each other stumble and ideally help each other up. We need to see people in positions of public leadership do this in public view and know that it’s not giving in, it’s growing out — it’s a chance to be stronger. These moments are not all bad, they’re exactly the kinds of moments that offer opportunities to build trust and confidence where it’s diminishing and languishing.

This tree motto is inviting me to take it all way too far so I’ll stop here. We’ve stalled out on binaries of rights and wrongs in our politics, we can feel it everywhere. We can’t move them around to get to proper systems of care, to get there we’ll need to focus more on the “how” of our politics than the obsession we have with the “what”. We need to get into the pluralities of choices inherent in the operations of our politics — the taking one path then deciding to take another, and another. To be confident in communicating these things in human terms, not those of obfuscation. Flexibility can be a great strength of a leader — rigidity sometimes too, in values rather than choices — but always both.

A Request for You — Support the Censure

Can you please email the president of U of T — Meric Gertler — you can do so here: president @ utoronto.ca

It doesn’t have to be a long note, but if you can make it personal you might be surprised how much it might help him. My words are one effort at saying my feelings. Your words will be another. Communicating why we want better and different is highly personal and it’s always hard to know what will resonate with each of us.

Beyond that, making sure people know this kind of thing is happening at the University matters too, tell who you can, write if you can. And if you run workshops or speak or do anything in relation to the university you can make sure you uphold the censure and ask that others do too. Thanks for time on this.