The University of Toronto has now backed down on the subject of the anti-Jewish Peto thesis, if only just a little and if only disingenuously. When the story first broke, U of T officials insisted on the following mantra: the thesis is fully protected by principles of freedom of speech. Period. Criticisms from outside scholars stating that the thesis has no scholarly merit, regardless of its point of view, were simply ignored. Instead, U of T officials kept suggesting that the critics were motivated by a desire to suppress freedom, that they are, more or less, Fascists. Offense was the U of T's defense.
(The thesis was completed at U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education [OISE}, more particularly in OISE's Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education [SESE].)
Now the tone has changed, a little:
U of T provost Cheryl Misak said she has been “a little alarmed at the kinds of things being said about a piece of student work.”
“It would be a good idea for us all to remember that it’s a student paper,” she said Tuesday. “I don’t know this student, but I certainly wouldn’t want to see this kind of scrutiny and unhappy attention on students in general.” (According to a report in the Toronto Star)
"So," Ms. Misak seems to say, "well, yes, maybe this thesis isn't so perfect after all, but come on, it's a student paper, you know, and students will be students." Wrong, Ms. Misak. Surely, being a provost, you know the difference between a "student paper" and an officially imprimatured M.A. thesis ?
The Star now tells us that Ms. Peto's work has received unfavorable attention in the Ontario legislature, and not a minute too soon. But the Peto thesis is no aberration at OISE, and the public's attention should not be confined to it. On the contrary, the thesis is unfortunately rather typical of what is done at OISE, at least in OISE's Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education. As we shall see, OISE, or at least SESE, often resembles a political cult more than an institution of higher learning.
1) Peto's thesis supervisor, Sheryl Nestel, supervised at least one other recent anti-Jewish MA thesis, by a student called Griffin Epstein (2009). I find this work a totally incoherent anti-Jewish rant, a piece of free association without any pretense of academic argument. While it has less structure and less neo-Marxist rhetoric than Peto's thesis, the basic ideas are strikingly similar: the Jews are a racist bunch, responsible for the death of innumerable Palestinian children.
2) I have looked at the abstracts of the thirty-six SESE theses available online (including one supervised by Nestel in a different OISE department). I 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. I did not find anyone who professed a conservative, or Christian, or, G-d forbid, a Zionist point of view.
3) The website of SESE maintains that the Department is, in fact, a "constitutional democracy:"
The department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) is organized as a constitutional democracy with a General Assembly and Standing Committees which provide policy and decision-making in departmental programs, selection of incoming students, etc. .... Our constitution is based on one person/one vote, and everyone in the Department (staff, faculty, and registered students) has voting rights and is welcome to participate in the General Assembly.....
Does that mean that the students vote on academic matters, on equal footing with faculty ? That would be a bit curious, to say the least. And more in line with a political movement than with a university department.
4) The cult-like terminology that I found in the MA abstracts is also used by faculty, including the Department Chair, Professor Rinaldo Walcott. Professor Walcott's specialty is "Black queer theory." And at least six of the SESE teaching staff, including the Chair, can be seen together as a cozy bunch when signing anti-Israel pronouncements and petitions (the statements I have checked are dated 1/27/09 and 2/27/09; obviously there are many more that I could have consulted).
So here are my conclusions:
A) SESE, and perhaps even OISE as a whole, is a nice warm place for those who agree on a radical left-wing worldview. There is a lot of "freedom of speech," as they would put it, for these co-thinkers. There does not seem to be much of that freedom for others.
B) SESE, and perhaps even OISE, is more of a cult than an institution of higher learning.
C) Obviously, these nice folk have every right in the world to believe and to proclaim that Israel is evil, or that the moon is made of green cheese. But do they have a right to i) call themselves scholars ? or to ii) conspire to have the Ontario taxpayer finance their nice little cult ?
D) Perhaps it's time for the U of T to cut itself free from its OISE encumbrance.
My related postings on this topic:
OISE: Social Science Captured by the New Dogmatists