The View From Here – Universities should challenge students ideas, not pander to them

Tom Henihan
Canadian university students are once again showing their intolerance for opinions that run contrary to the opinions they hold and to political and legal outcomes that they find disappointing.

A lecture to be given at Bishop’s University by Marie Henein, and live-streamed to three other Nova Scotia universities, Mount Allison, Acadia and St. Francis Xavier, is being met with opposition by students.

Marie Henein is the lawyer who successfully defended Jian Ghomeshi in the high-profile sexual assault trial that ended last March with his acquittal on all five counts.

St. Francis Xavier University student Jasmine Cormier has called for the cancellation of Henein as guest speaker, citing that the safety of the students takes precedence over a lecture delivered by Henein “who has spent her career contesting women who are possible victims of sexual assault.”

Lucille Harper, the director of the Antigonish women’s resource centre supports Cormier’s position adding that Henein’s defence of Ghomeshi contributed to victims of sexual abuse being held responsible for the violent attacks they have experienced.

No one should minimize the seriousness of sexual assault or underestimate the sense of vulnerability of young women in university, but seeing a connection between Henein’s lecture and the safety of students is a bit of a stretch.

Universities should be safe places when it comes to the physical and emotional wellbeing of the students, but universities should be anything but safe places for those who want their entrenched, adolescent ideas bolstered rather than challenged.

In any other circumstance, due to her success as a lawyer students would see Henein’s as a role model. However, in the Ghomeshi case, the tacit implication is that a female lawyer defending a man in a sexual assault case should pull her punches, show solidarity to the plaintive and offer her client a half-hearted defence.

Because she did not compromise herself or her profession and that she treated women as equal under the law, Henein may now be personae non grata on university campuses.

Henein’s reputation as a lawyer should not be the issue here. The question is why any university would prohibit someone from speaking because the students deem that person on the wrong side of a cause.

Due to intellectual and moral cowardice of administrators, universities are becoming insular bunkers where students can dig in and resist any challenge to their ideas and overwhelm discourse by throwing a righteous glamour-fit if their position is opposed.

Universities used to be places where young, curious minds would receive the vital initiation of having their closely held beliefs mercilessly debunked, an experience that set them on the road to real learning, giving them the insight and maturity to question their own stand as rigorously as they question the position of others.

Those students who oppose Marie Henein speaking at Bishop’s University are the very students who should be encouraged by their professors and the administration to attend her lecture.

They should be encouraged to attend, not to engage in the facile chanting of slogans but to listen to what Henein has to say and maybe then mount the ultimate protest of expressing well informed, coherent ideas of their own.

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