First Letter Full Version – Aug. 2, 2017

 

13 February 2017

Dear Dr. Mahon,

I write to you from the perspective of a member of the community. The university is important to all of us because our well-being depends on the existence of institutions of liberal education which produce, as affirmed by the University of Lethbridge’s vision statement, “engaged citizens who are intent on understanding relevant issues and on improving our region, our country, and our world.” (See Destination 2020: Vision and Strategy.)

Vision statements are important, though inevitably somewhat platitudinous. The devil is in the details of their implementation. In this regard I find it difficult to reconcile the decision to suspend Professor Anthony Hall with the claim in Destination 2020 that “We believe in academic freedom”, and “We practice procedural fairness and act in accordance with all applicable codes of professional and ethical practice and conduct.”

I am aware of your concern that Professor Hall may have violated Section 3 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination and hate-speech based on religious belief among other things. Some people think that Professor Hall is guilty of anti-Semitism, but, having reviewed a great deal of his online activities, it has become clear to me that this is a mistaken interpretation of his views. I will be very surprised if he could be convicted of a hate crime under the Human Rights Act.

However, even if the Alberta Human Rights Commission were to convict Professor Hall, whether in error or not, the decision to suspend him is at odds with the Canadian Association of University Teachers policy on “Academic Staff and Criminal Conviction”:

“An academic staff member charged with a criminal offence but not incarcerated shall continue to carry out the duties associated with their position in the normal manner, receiving full pay and benefits. Suspension of the member is only justified where their presence on campus poses a clear, serious and imminent danger to any member of the academic institution.”

I imagine that the decision to suspend Professor Hall was a difficult one. There may be aspects of this that the public does not know. Serious though the matter is, I, for one, am not inclined to blame you if in hindsight it appears that a mistake was made.

One of the factors in the decision is likely related to the fact that Professor Hall has called for a serious investigation of the official story of 9/11. This is an honest, albeit impolitic, position. He stands in a long line of university professors who took impolitic positions on issues of importance – to name a few:

  • philosopher Bertrand Russell dismissed from Trinity College in 1916 for pacifist views during World War I
  • historian Hermann Oncken from the University of Berlin in 1935 for being at odds with Nazi ideology
  • musicologist Kurt Huber dismissed from the University of Munich (and executed) in 1943 for writing a pamphlet for the White Rose group
  • physicist David Bohm suspended from Princeton in 1950 for a conflict with McCarthyism
  • historian Benjamin Keen blacklisted in the 50s for a run in with McCarthyism

A complete list would be very long. These cases share a similar pattern: a sincere attempt on the part of a professor to get at the truth and to put forward prosocial views at odds with existing power structures. When circumstances change they often become recognized as having been right.

One professor who almost made this list, but did not, was Canadian historian, Frank Underhill, who came close to being dismissed by the University of Toronto in 1941 for his criticism of British imperialism. A champion of academic freedom, Underhill advocated in his 1959 convocation address at Queen’s University the need for professors to be willing to publicly discuss “embarrassing questions in an embarrassing way.” (See Kenneth Dewar, Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas.)

In dismissing Professor Hall you have not only disparaged him personally for discussing embarrassing questions but surely you have put a chill into other professors throughout the world who might otherwise be willing to do so. Moreover, it needs to be asked: What message about expressing controversial views has been transmitted to students, some of whom opted to take Professor Hall’s courses?

The university is the last place to be silencing dissidents. If you or the university community thinks Professor Hall’s views are too one-sided or far-fetched then encourage other professors to present alternative views and argue against him. Let him be challenged. Is that not possible?

The popularity of a belief is not an indicator of its truth. Were it not for academics willing to risk ridicule and vilification we would all still be believing that the sun revolves around the earth, that meteorites do not exist because rocks cannot fall out of the sky, and that infectious diseases are caused by miasma instead of microbes.

It is too late now to undo the suspension that has already been put into effect, but it is not too late to reinstate Professor Hall for the term beginning in September 2017. Aside from the issue of fairness to Professor Hall is the question of how his dismissal serves the common good. From outside the institution the decision to suspend him appears to be in complete violation of the University of Lethbridge’s vision statement. Why not remedy this? Acknowledge the mistake and reaffirm the value of academic freedom.

If remedy is not possible then the public deserves an explanation.

Sincerely,

Andrew Blair

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