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Lessons from the Allan Rock fiasco with Ann Coulter

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Lessons from the Allan Rock fiasco with Ann Coulter
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Ann CoulterWhen politicians rule universities


Thanks to access to information (ATI) legislation, the present analysis is based on 138 emails about US political and media pundit Ann Coulter – received or sent by the president of the University of Ottawa, Allan Rock, between March 17, 2010, and April 20, 2010. The ATI-obtained emails (records) are referenced as “(rec-1)”, “(rec-2)” and so on (in chronological order) and are linked in the present text and posted to the web.

During this time period, the University of Ottawa, in the hands of Allan Rock who personally managed ever minute step, suffered the greatest media damage to its public image and reputation in its more than 150 year history – to the extent that by the end of this short time period the executives were discussing implementing a “reputation risks and how we mitigate these risks” component for the university’s “Enterprise Risk Management Plan.”

At most universities the Board of Governors (or Board of Trustees or Regents) is composed of individuals representing corporate and finance interests who ensure that the university best serves these interests. Such a university at least has direction. At the University of Ottawa, originally a private catholic institution (founded in 1848), the Board presently is weak and the executive officers are given free reign to govern following their personal limitations. In the past at Ottawa the executive officers were chosen from academic ranks and were trusted to manage the institution along the lines of at least maintaining some of the institution’s original French catholic interests in what became (made public in 1966) North America’s largest bilingual (French and English) university.

Up until Rock, there was institutional culture continuity with gradual change from private French catholic to public bilingual governance with an emphasis on the Franco-Ontarian community.  

In its latest experiment, within a dominant economic globalization paradigm, the University of Ottawa was manoeuvred into selecting a former high-profile globalist federal politician as president. For the first time in the university’s 150-year history, the president was chosen from non-academic ranks and allowed free reign to reconfigure the executive committee and redefine institutional priorities.

For the first time in the university’s history, the university was going to be run and reconfigured by someone who had no professional knowledge of the university and its constraining fundamental principles: free expression, community integration, collegial governance, and academic freedom.

The present study of the Rock fiasco with Coulter makes these knowledge and culture gap liabilities in the new president painfully clear: You can’t run a university like you would a federal election campaign, or manage media fallout like you would as a federal government minister.  

The main lesson should be that it cannot only be about form. It must be about substance. The University of Ottawa has the lowest student satisfaction ratings of any major University in Canada and this cannot be changed via an on-campus feel-good propaganda campaign or a branding exercise. It can’t be fixed by large entrance scholarships. And it can’t be fixed by a “star” president who wants “to put the University of Ottawa in the service of the world.”

It must be fixed by what happens in the classrooms and lecture halls and in the agora. Students need relevance in their lives and relevance of their lives, now. Unfortunately, this was not the lesson for the U of O executive and its consultants. Never did it occur to them to immediately call a broad and authentic town hall discussion about the Coulter events. Nor do they even have a valid concept of the town hall meeting. Instead, they literally applied “classic communications strategy” (rec-84) and crawled under rocks until the thing blew over, except for one disingenuous press release that blamed Coulter.  

This is the story of how the U of O bosses under Rock took a unique occasion to have a substantive and educational debate about freedom of expression and made it into an unqualified fiasco with long term negative consequences, not the least of which is an increased barrier against unconstrained public discourse between opposing sides.

It’s also the story of Allan Rock as decision maker.


It starts (rec-1) with a March 17th open letter (cc to student media) from student union president Seamus Wolfe to Allan Rock asking, in the name of “free speech and open dialogue”, that Rock “notify Ms. Coulter that she is not welcome on our campus, and that her event will not occur on uOttawa property.”

That such a letter (rec-1) can be produced shows that the student union and the student associations that support it are misguided on the fundamental concept of free societal discourse that a university is bound to uphold.  

The first thing (40 minutes after the Wolfe email was sent) Allan Rock does (rec-2) is ask his executive officers and his communications staff for their advice in which he states “In my opinion, respect for free expression must be maintained … but I am sensitive to these concerns.”  The operative word here is “respect”, as in “appear not to interfere with,” as opposed to “unconditionally defend.”

The next thing (82 minutes after the Wolfe email was sent) Allan Rock does (rec-3) is ask the president of the University of Toronto, David Naylor, for some guidance:

“I have been put in a similar spot by our student associations who have asked me to cancel an appearance by Ann Coulter, the vacuous and offensive no-lobe who shills for the fringes of the American right on the comically mis-named “Fox News Network”…”

Naylor responds immediately (rec-4) with concrete advice:

“1. Clarify the sponsorship/nature of the visit. This is critical. […]
2. Decide the level of security risk, and insist that, if it’s a rental, the sponsors pay for extensive security/police presence.
3. Consider the pros and cons of a public statement. Could be helpful […] could backfire […]”

In this shameful exchange it is clear that the two men are on the same page: “How does one exclude unwanted speakers and manage the reactions either to excluding speakers or to hosting controversial topics being on campus?” rather than “How does one enact the university’s responsibility to vigorously protect free expression and encourage societal discourse?”

Although U of T’s official policy (e.g., rec-26, p.3) states, as do most public university mission statements, that the university has a duty to enable (outside) community participation and public discourse events, the first thing Naylor asks is whether this is a certified student group! That’s the spirit.

The second thing Naylor suggests is to hit the undesirable speaker with a large security risk policing bill. This is a tactic well known to campus and community organizers, as is the tactic of outrageous liability insurance costs. These financial barriers quell student-community exchanges and constrain the topics allowed on campus. These are barely concealed censorship methods involving discrimination between events for which the administration agrees to pay ad hoc extract costs and events for which it does not.

Of course the first thing Allan Rock did within minutes (rec-6) was to request who booked the event and to urgently order “an assessment of security risk.” You would think that if there was a significant security risk it is the first thing anyone would think of rather than have to be told to consider it?

Rock was not amused by his communication chief’s humorous “Attila the Hun … lol!” banter about Coulter (rec-8): “Who is sponsoring her visit to campus? Who rented room?” And then (rec-10): “Can I get an answer first thing tomorrow? If it is not a ‘recognized student group’ I may ask for a security deposit but I have to act FAST. Thanks.”

Would a group of students count as a ‘recognized’ student group? Or is that too spontaneous and educational? How about a group that has students in it?

Then at 7:08am on March 18th (rec-16) Rock tells VP-Resources (and campus police boss) Victor Simon “‘legitimate student group’ or […] we should then consider an estimate of our security costs and whether to require a cash deposit as a condition of allowing them to proceed.”

Rock and his team did not compare the “cost” of having a few or more than a few staff university police at the event compared to the actual extra costs of some of the president’s vanity campus events with former Liberal colleagues, the president’s vanity campus lecture series, the president’s show panels to promote unpopular policies, “promotional” touring, and the branding and on-campus propaganda budgets…

Rock and his team did not compare the cost of freedom of expression to the cost of managing the mental environment.

Meanwhile VP-Resources Victor Simon, who is notorious for his disregard for academic freedom (LINK), asks “University Community Life” boss Marc Duval to leave academic freedom considerations aside in considering whether Coulter’s visit should be supported (rec-20, p.2). Duval’s response is predictable and is endorsed by Simon (rec-20).

Then (now 10:14am March 18th) Rock calls an urgent meeting and has detailed questions for Simon and VP-Academic Francois Houle (rec-21):

“[…] 2. If it’s a student group, is it officially recognized? […] 4. Is there a precedent for asking for a cash deposit in advance to cover extra security costs? 5. What would be the basis for cancellation now? How would that explanation be reconciled with the right to free speech on campus? 6. I would imagine that one valid reason to cancel is that the person has engaged in overt “hate speech” within the meaning of that term in the Criminal Code. Should we have her past utterances examined from that point of view?”

Wow. As Allan puts it (rec-21) “there are important principles at stake and we must keep them in mind.”

Can we kill that dude and how would we reconcile that with the law against murder? Can we claim self-defence if the dude can be argued to have had criminal behaviour in the past? This is a former Minister of Justice at work – You can hear the gears turning.

At 10:51am (rec-22) Simon says he will bring the information to the meeting but he will not participate in the decision. Houle did not show for the meeting (rec-26).

Later in the day (6:30pm, rec-26), Rock gives his final and detailed instructions to VP-Academic Francois Houle:

“1. Ann Coulter is a mean-spirited, small-minded, foul-mouthed poltroon. She is “the loud mouth that bespeaks the vacant mind". She is an ill-informed and deeply offensive shill for a profoundly shallow and ignorant view of the world. She is a malignancy on-the-body politic. She it a disgrace to the broadcasting industry and a leading example of the dramatic decline in the quality of public discourse in recent times.

2. We should not take any steps to interfere with her plans to speak next week on our campus.

3. We should ask Claude Giroux to ensure that he receives a cash deposit from her representing a generous estimate of increased security costs and possibly also an amount from which to repair any damage that might be caused by a disturbance. His request for those amounts should go out tomorrow and he should say that we want the deposit in hand before the end of Monday. The finances of the University should not be either invested or put at risk to enable Coulter to advance her cause.

4. We should respond to the letter from student associations by pointing out that the reservation was made by a student organization that has indeed been properly recognized by the Student Federation. Furthermore, we should explain to them that we do not Intend to stop the presentation because there is no principled basis on which to do so. We should encourage the student associations and their members to make their own views about Coulter's opinions known, in a civil and responsible manner. We can draw upon the attached material In crafting our message. That material expresses very well the principles and considerations that are engaged here. The precedents attached can assist us in preparing both our admonitions to Coulter to remain within the law and limits of "free speech" and in defending our decision not to cancel her reservation.

5. You, Francois, as Provost, should write immediately to Coulter Informing her of our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, that put reasonable limits on the freedom of expression, and drawing her attention to the responsibility that comes with the right to free speech: that is, to avoid inciting hatred, not to single out individuals or identifiable groups for calumny or abuse, and to weigh words with respect and civility in mind. You should also, in my view, tell her that we have a strong tradition in Canada, including at this University, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions. You should urge her to respect that Canadian tradition as she enjoys the privilege of her visit.”

Mr. Rock, with the selective perception that one expects to be perfected to a high degree in politicians, sees no contradiction between his point-2 and his other points, none at all. Of course he probably means “it should appear that we did not interfere” but even so it should be obvious to Rock that thanks to his actions it will most certainly appear that he did interfere, in more ways than one.

Note (point-3) that Rock is asking for a “generous estimate” of costs, and possibly including a deposit for “any damage”. A “generous estimate”? Is that a financial accounting term? Why “generous”? Why not “accurate”?

In point-4 Rock refers to 24 attached pages of U of T policy and principle statement documents about freedom of expression. Rock does not appear to have actually read or understood these documents or he would not have written his 5-point directives. He only suggests using the attached material to support his position before “progressives” for not cancelling Coulter outright. This man has a well compartmentalized brain in which no overriding general principles get in the way: You cover these guys this way and you cover their opponents this other way which is contrary to the first way and you send out this press release…  

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