Featured Post

How To Deal With Gaza After Hamas

Thursday, December 9, 2010

University of Toronto's insufficient response to hate thesis inquiry

One of the central questions about the controversial thesis, "The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education,” written by a Jewish anti-Israel activist named Jenny Peto, is whether proper procedure had been followed at OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), which is part of the University of Toronto.

The thesis has not only been accused of being hateful and anti-Semtic, but scholars like UBC Professor Emeritus of Sociology Werner Cohn and York University Jewish History Professor Irving Abella, have referred to it in terns such as "devoid of scholarship" and "totally ahistorical .. full of untruths and distortions and held together by fatuous and very flabby analysis. It borders on anti-Semitism.

The issue of academic freedom is not at the heart of this matter. Ms Peto, or anyone else has the right to propose contentious ideas as the basis for an academic thesis. But when Ms Peto proposes ideas which, on the face are absurd, such as that the Jewish community as a whole is racist and that Holocaust education programs are designed to perpetuate that racism, then one would expect that some level of rigorous scrutiny should be applied.

So the question remaining is, were proper procedures followed at OISE regarding Ms. Peto's Master's thesis?

Earlier this week, I exchanged emails with the office of OISE's new dean, Julia O'Sullivan, to ask whether she would be prepared to respond to some questions. They agreed to look at them and the questions were:

Was the thesis approved by the Department and a Thesis Committee and/or Director of Graduate Studies?

Was there a second or other readers beside thesis advisor Sheryl Nestel? If so were they members of the Graduate Faculty?

Is Ms Nestel a member of the Graduate Faculty?

Do you have concerns about the politicization in general and the politicization from a single perspective in certain OISE Departments and if so, what do you see as ways of addressing that?

The response, received today, was not from Dean O'Sullivan at OISE, but from Cheryl Misak, Vice President and Provost at U of T.

The response was:
"Due to our privacy obligations to students, I cannot discuss an individual student’s academic work or his or her performance. What I can, say, however, is that freedom of expression issues are ever-present in our society, especially on a university campus. The University of Toronto's Statement on Freedom of Speech makes it clear that freedom of inquiry lies at the very heart of our institution: “all members of the University must have as a prerequisite freedom of speech and expression, which means the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large."
"Of the thousands of MA theses written at the University of Toronto, in partial fulfillment of degree requirements, it is inevitable that some will have elements that offend various individuals and groups. In such cases, the University is committed to allowing and encouraging a full range of debate. For the best way for controversy to unfold is for members of our community to engage with the perspectives and arguments they dispute. It is intelligent argument, not censorship, that lies at the heart of our democratic society and its institutions."

“OISE is a very diverse place, with no one point of view dominating others.”
The first two paragraphs have been Provost Misak's standard media response to this controversy, and while she is correct in everything she says, she evades responding to the actual questions, in particular, the germane issue of whether proper procedure was followed.

The last part of her response is one that is certainly open to question. There does indeed seem to be the appearance, at least in the department that spawned Ms Peto's thesis, that indeed one view does dominate others.
Professor Cohn wrote an analysis which suggests that Ms Peto's essay was indicative of a systematic problem at OISE's Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE).

There are concerns that SESE program is so overtly politicized, with anti-Israel, anti-capitalist biases, that scholarship has become secondary to ideology.

Saying "SESE often resembles a political cult more than an institution of higher learning," Cohn looked at the abstracts of the thirty-six SESE theses. He reports that he "found eighteen of these to be so full of leftist position-taking that it would appear, prima facie, that there is no attempt at scholarly detachment in these works."

The University of Toronto is publicly going to circle the wagons, but I have had private conversations with professors who teach there who have described some programs and some professors at OISE as "an embarrassment."

The question now is, will U of T act behind the scenes to address the problems that are embarrassing that institution?

Michael Coren took a look at this issue last night:

UPDATE: OISE reportedly hosted secret anti-Israel meetings directed at high school students. More here.


truepeers said...

I agree that the focus needs to be on the systemic bias of the academy, such that a defense of academic freedom is generally invoked to defend the extreme left but not conservatives who have a much harder time making a career in academe.

And of course it's not just OISE or U of T, however bad they are. Education faculties are widely seen to be home to the most intellectually debased forms of political correctness, or vicimary thinking, among the many prevalent in the academy today. One needs to ask why that is and if ending their monopoloy on the production of teachers would be a positive step forward.

Anonymous said...

I did not mind when children came home from school making statements like "don't smoke daddy." The idea of them coming and saying "admit your white guilt" is in contrast quite frightening.

Concerns about academic freedom, scholarship and/or some misguided idiot and her thesis pale in comparison to the disaster that will ensue if the monopoly of the radical left on the production of teachers is not ended.

Richard K said...

As irrelevant it may have been to the questions I posed, I agreed with everything Cheryl Misak wrote in the first two paragraphs of her response.

Academic freedom, even for ideas as idiotic as those espoused by Peto, is important. But if an idea as contentious as hers is being put forward, it should be subject to rigorous scrutiny rather than be applauded by an ideological cheering section which ignored factual errors, lack of empirical research and dismal scholarship in which she utterly failed to prove her points.

I've read better high school essays than her Master's thesis and it is indictive of a troubling situation in the OISE Diversity Studies program. Academic freedom also includes a responsibility to fairness, to scholarship and to allowing other points of view.

I have heard reports of OISE being dominated by the types of attitudes exemplfied in this report and of an atmosphere of intimidation towards those who differ.

That's not academic freedom and U of T has a responsibilty to investigate the situation in that program to determine whether academic standards are being met.