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What Is a University for?

According to University Affairs, a Canadian university professor recently worked with a student who asked that he be allowed to withdraw from public interaction in a group project with female students on the basis of his religious beliefs. After an extraordinary amount of conversation and consultation, the professor insisted that withdrawing from contact from women was not an option, and the student seems to have received the decision with good grace.

Sadly, however, if also surprisingly, university administrators disagreed with the professor as a kind of multiculturalist reflex, and directed him to accommodate the student’s request. He refused, with the agreement of his department, and thus left himself open to disciplinary charges.

In the article and ensuing comments section, a sound answer to one very basic question would have clarified most, if not all, of the issues involved: What values are intrinsic to the secular university enterprise and therefore cannot be compromised?

Twenty years ago, I led seminars on this very question at the University of Manitoba for 20 or so faculty colleagues. The values we ended up endorsing were later published by a university organ dedicated to improving teaching at the U of M.

The key question remains: Can the student’s religious views be accommodated without compromising any of the values essential to the proper functioning of the university?

In the case of, say, rescheduling an examination in order to avoid conflict with a holy day, normally one would say yes. One would not say yes, however, if the rescheduling somehow gave the student an advantage over other students in the same course that could not be compensated for in the grading of his assignment, or if test security could not be assured, and so on.

In the case reported in the article, even as a feminist I would say that what ought to happen would depend on the nature and intended outcome of the assignment, not on whether I like the idea of a student wanting to be excused from working with women. The Canadian secular university does not exist to teach students correct views of gender, or other values on which religions disagree. It does exist to get certain educational tasks done in a certain way that requires a certain kind of community.

So the question is this: Could the pedagogical objectives of the assignment, and of the course as a whole, be reached without having the student compromise his religious beliefs? If not, then yes, the student’s views have to give way: the secular university is what it is, and when it is acting true to its mission, it must be free to proceed. But such an insistence ought to come only after alternatives have been explored and found deficient. That’s what reasonable accommodation means.

This case, not incidentally, casts light–as all cases cast light on all other related cases when it comes to the politics of diversity–on the Quebec Values Charter controversy. If an employee of the state cannot perform his or her duty because of the wearing of a particular religious symbol, then he or she must decide between job and symbol. The state is correct to insist that everyone be treated competently by its employees. But until someone’s religious symbols can be shown to interfere with his or her duties, the presumptive nod has to go to individual freedom, including religious freedom.

Indeed, it is a powerful statement of multiculturalism to be able to say, This person obviously is a member of a Sikh community/Jewish synagogue/Christian church/Islamic tradition and yet a full-fledged member also of our society who serves fellow citizens as a state employee. In a world full of ideological violence, isn’t this a great society we get to enjoy?

It is indeed a great society to enjoy. Let’s keep it, and encourage it to flourish.


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