HALIFAX — Dalhousie University’s interim president has written a new book on campus debate and dissent — and it has provoked both at the Halifax school, with some students calling for his dismissal.
Peter MacKinnon, former president of the University of Saskatchewan, took over the helm of Dalhousie in January as it searches for a new top administrator.
But his appointment has proven controversial, after a group of students protested at his welcome reception, issuing a strong rebuke against his recent book, “University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus.”
The students say the book expresses “racist perspectives” and “oppressive rhetoric” on topics such as blackface, and have issued a list of demands — including his immediate removal as interim president.
The controversy appears to have roiled the university, which marked its bicentennial last year with forums and workshops related to the theme Year of Belonging.
“The university has made repeated claims that it’s committed to diversity, equity and inclusion — and then it hires this extremely divisive figure,” says Letitia Meynell, an associate professor of philosophy at Dalhousie.
In an interview, MacKinnon says the impetus for writing the book was a sense that public conversations on difficult issues have become more severe.
“I think they’re becoming more rhetorical, I think they’re becoming more emotive, and I think they’re becoming more inclined to denunciation than illumination,” he says.
The 71-year-old officer of the Order of Canada — short-listed for the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006 — says freedom of expression is a fundamental university value.
But MacKinnon says he’s concerned that issues of high sensitivity are increasingly met with “ritualistic denunciation” on campuses, rather than respectful discussion.
“It is incumbent upon universities to model what debate means, and I think part of that is being open and being engaged on contentious issues and avoiding highly rhetorical and denunciatory responses,” he says.
However, Hayley Zacks, a fourth-year student studying at Dalhousie, says MacKinnon only appears to value freedom of expression and open debate when it supports his own views.
“He doesn’t like dissent when it’s not in his favour, he calls that uncivilized and divisive,” Zacks says.
Meanwhile, Meynell — who’s cross-appointed with Dal’s Gender and Women’s Studies department — took issue with MacKinnon’s position that universities have strayed from a commons in which civility is valued.
“It’s a kind of nostalgia for a time when white men were massively privileged and had control of the university debate,” she says. “He’s basically saying Make Campuses Great Again.”
In his book, MacKinnon discusses contentious topics like blackface Halloween costumes, Dalhousie’s dentistry faculty scandal, Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s views on gender pronouns.
MacKinnon acknowledges that some of the issues explored in his book have “touched a nerve” and caused distress.
In a report to the university’s senate last week, he addressed some of the concerns, saying that while some of the issues are discussed in depth in his book, others are mentioned for “illustrative purposes.”
The passage in MacKinnon’s book that appears to have garnered the greatest backlash refers to costume parties involving white students in blackface.
The incidents sparked outrage on campuses, but MacKinnon suggests in his book that there was “a lack of proportion in the responses.”
“These were Halloween parties, not cultural misappropriations, Nazi mimicry, or manifestations of disapproval of other peoples,” he wrote. “So describing them risks diminishing real problems of intolerance, discrimination, and racism.”
He added later in the chapter that the reaction to the incidents involved “narrow interpretations of Halloween costumes and overreaction to them.”
MacKinnon told the senate he stands by the discussion of these topics in his book, but he says some have interpreted his comments as condoning blackface.
“I do not condone blackface,” he told the senate. “I regret any interpretation to the contrary, and the distress it has caused.”
MacKinnon has also offered to meet with concerned students, and says he’s “willing to engage in conversation on difficult issues.”
But some students and faculty aren’t backing down from their criticism of the interim leader, and the process undertaken to hire him.
“He’s trying to backtrack. But to me his book still perpetuates blackface and gives words and excuses to students that do blackface,” says Zacks. “That’s a really dangerous narrative … he’s excusing behaviour that’s incredibly harmful.”
Matthew Sears, an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton who is outspoken on social justice issues nationwide, called MacKinnon’s book “wildly out of touch.”
“How many acts of casual or overt racism are we just simply going dismiss as a joke or, ‘Don’t be so sensitive,'” he said. “As someone who has never faced that kind of discrimination based on colour or ethnicity, I don’t think you get to tell people to settle down.”
Sears added: “If you have a group of students at Dalhousie who are already inclined to make fun of these equity-seeking groups, this will be a shot in the arm for them.”
Lianne Xiao, president of the student union at King’s College, a small liberal arts university within the Dalhousie campus, says MacKinnon’s book “is harmful and racist and fuels negative stereotypes on campus.”
Xiao says his comments to the senate, and an email sent to students on the topic, have not alleviated concerns.
Despite vocal opponents to MacKinnon’s interim tenure, others at Dalhousie have welcomed his arrival.
Reagan Seidler, a second year student at Dal’s Schulich School of Law, says MacKinnon is “arguably the most well-respected university leader in the country.”
A former student president at one of the University of Saskatchewan’s colleges during MacKinnon’s tenure, he says it’s difficult to witness his legacy reduced to one passage in his book.
“One reason Peter was so celebrated in Saskatoon is for his leadership on behalf of racialized students, particularly Indigenous students. He has a real track record the protesters surely know nothing about.”
Seidler added: “We’ve asked him to put off retirement for a temporary job across the country at a school in constant turmoil. He’s here because he cares.”
MacKinnon, originally from P.E.I. but who now calls Canmore, Alta., home, says he hopes to contribute to the university during his time — currently expected to be six months, though an extension is possible.
“I want to sustain the incredible momentum of this university,” he said, adding that he hopes to work closely with the school’s agricultural campus in Truro and continue to build on the university’s strength in the ocean sector.
“This is an exciting university. I certainly don’t want to move across the country simply to be a place holder.”
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press