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Honorary Degrees, Tolerance and Ethics

June 19, 2006

Margaret Somerville plans to pick up her honorary degree today at Ryerson University, in Toronto, whether protests materialize or not.

Somerville has plenty of honorary degrees and other honors from universities around the world. But Ryerson's decision to give the McGill University professor an honor at today's graduation ceremonies has set off a huge debate in Canada -- similar in many ways to the furor over the New School's invitation to Sen. John McCain to speak at its graduation last month.

In the case of Somerville, her opposition to gay marriage led several student groups and many faculty members to urge that she be disinvited to receive the honor. Somerville is a medical ethicist, holding appointments at McGill's medical and law schools, and most of her work has nothing to do with gay marriage, but she did testify against it before a Parliamentary committee. With protests being planned for graduation, a Ryerson panel reviewed the invitation and concluded that it would be wrong to rescind the honor, but said that had Somerville's views been known before the honor was announced, it would have been appropriate never to have extended the offer in the first place.

That statement offended Somerville, who suggested to reporters that she might not go after all, and angered many Canadians as a spineless defense of Somerville's right as a scholar to hold to her views. The Globe and Mail, Canada's most influential newspaper, published an editorial Saturday in which it said: "If there were a medal for the limpest defense of free speech, Ryerson University would take it in a walk."

When Ryerson last month announced that Somerville was among the nine people selected for honorary degrees this year, she was praised for her "active role in the worldwide development of applied ethics, particularly the study of the wider ethical and legal aspects of medicine and science." Somerville's work covers many topics -- euthanasia and the death penalty (she's against both), studying the ethical issues raised by plans to combat bioterrorism, and reproductive technologies (she's skeptical of many and opposed to others). Of the more than 300 scholarly papers she has published, only 1 focuses on gay marriage.

In a phone interview from her Montreal office Saturday, Somerville said that her opposition to gay marriage comes out of her work on reproductive technologies. She said she started working on that issue when she was approached by children and adults who were created by artificial means -- and that many of them are troubled by the process by which they were brought into the world, and their lack of information about one or more of their biological parents. Somerville said that she worried that gay marriage would lead to challenges to laws she supports that ban cloning and the selling of eggs. She stressed that she backs full civil unions for gay couples and laws that would bar any discrimination against gay people except on the right to marry.

While Somerville's views on a range of issues have been debated over the years, her opinions on gay marriage came as an upsetting surprise to many students and faculty members at the university. An online petition called her anti-feminist and anti-gay and said that giving her an honorary degree would be "contradictory to the human rights and anti-oppression policies" of the university.

Organizers of the opposition to Somerville, who are planning protests for today, did not respond to requests for interviews. But Nora Loreto of the Ryerson Students' Union told The Toronto Star that it was "ridiculous" not to rescind the invitation, adding, "If this was any other kind of hate, I would expect that the university would be very, very quick to rescind this degree."

The faculty committee that determines honorary degree recipients was convened to study the controversy and issued a statement last week standing by its decision -- but that is the statement that has resulted in more criticism of Ryerson.

The statement said that committee members were "unaware of some positions" that Somerville had taken, and that the panel would review its procedures in light of that. Some of Somerville's views, the committee said, are "at sharp variance from those of many members of our community." The problem, the committee said, was that the invitation had already been extended.

"There would have been no academic freedom concerns if we had initially decided not to award an honorary doctorate to Dr. Somerville. However, if we decide to rescind the award in a public manner, we are raising these concerns.... If we withdraw the award, then we demonstrate that as a university we show tolerance for some contestable views but not others. Consequently to rescind the award would raise basic issues of freedom of speech in an academic environment," the committee said.

Somerville characterized the statement as being one of the university saying "we don't want to honor you but we are going to hold our noses and do it." She said that by failing to defend her right to have her own views, beyond the question of appearances, the university committee was hurting academic freedom.

Normally in such a situation, she said, she would skip the ceremony. "If you don't want to honor me then I don't want to be honored," she said.

But she is going to Ryerson, she said, for two reasons. One is that Ryerson's president, Sheldon Levy, called her to apologize and to say that the university truly wanted to honor her. (University officials did not respond to requests to confirm this or share the institution's perspective.)

The other reason, she said, was that staying away would have been giving in to those who believe her views should make her unwelcome. "If I withdraw, I cause to happen the thing they want to happen," she said. As for the protests, she said, "as long as they aren't violent, I don't care."

 

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