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Controversy brews over York's handling of conference on Mideast

Questions of academic freedom and how far a university can go to manage debate and avoid confrontation are at the centre of a controversy developing at York University.

The Toronto campus - a flashpoint in recent years for Middle East tensions - is facing new charges from academics over its handling of a conference that sparked outrage from the Jewish community.

Organizers of the conference on options for statehood for Israel and Palestine say senior officials - including board head, businessman Marshall Cohen - overstepped the boundaries of academic freedom by taking actions they allege interfered in the planning of the event, by suggesting the inclusion of new speakers and the relocation of the conference to avoid a political storm of "tsunami proportions."

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The allegations come just weeks after the University of Ottawa faced similar criticism for its handling of a planned talk by political provocateur Ann Coulter, who received a caution from a senior administrator about Canada's free speech laws.

In this case, the York organizers have obtained through freedom of information requests a series of e-mails sent among university leaders in the months leading up to the event last June.

Those e-mails, obtained by The Globe and Mail, discuss how the university might avoid "a disaster," by paying for the event to be moved off campus, putting forward speakers to balance the program and planting participants in the audience to moderate debate. The aim was to avoid the type of controversy experienced at Montreal's Concordia University, where clashes between Muslim and Jewish students in 2002 badly damaged its reputation and led to the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"For those who care about York - this conference is bad news in and of itself, but on top of recent events, it will be a disaster," reads one lengthy e-mail from Mr. Cohen to university president Mamdouh Shoukri and law school dean Patrick Monahan, who is now provost of the school.

"York will never re-establish itself as a place where Jewish students can be comfortable. Moreover, if there are protests, etc., then we will have unleashed a media a circus à la Concordia."

Later, he adds, "Freedom of speech and academic freedom are essential to what we are," before listing options for "managing and mitigating the risks."

In another e-mail a few days, Mr. Cohen asks Mr. Shoukri, "Can the conference organizers enforce some discipline on the speakers - and are they strong enough to do so? Can we disinvite known hate mongers, if we have any on the program? Is this censorship?"

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In yet another e-mail to Mr. Monahan, Mr. Cohen discusses "Plan B," to move the event off-campus, saying of talks with organizers, "I can only assume that you put the fear of all 3 gods involved here into them! Good work."

A York spokesman said the university should be judged by the fact the event took place, despite strong objections from Jewish groups about its content.

"There is internal discussion and planning with any kind of event that we put on," Keith Marnoch said. "In the end, this conference did go on and we do not feel that academic freedom was breached."

Susan Drummond, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and one of the conference organizers, said the e-mails and a new report on the event by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci show the opposite.

"They intervened in an academic event and tried to change its shape," Prof. Drummond said. "It's huge. I've been telling the administration you need to deal with this because it is going to be shameful if this comes out publicly."

The release of a report on Friday by Mr. Iacobucci is what prompted organizers to go public, Prof. Drummond said.

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That report, she said, damages the organizers' reputations by questioning their scholarly credentials to hold the conference and does not address their concerns.

Reached Sunday, Mr. Monahan said the university supports the report's recommendation to review best practices on the exercise of academic freedom. "I understand the concerns that were raised," he said. "Justice Iacobucci has looked at that and he doesn't see any purpose in conducting further inquiries. Obviously there are a lot of different views about it."

Mr. Cohen could not be reached for comment.

The conference, Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace, provoked a backlash from several Jewish groups who saw it as an attack on the Jewish state masquerading as academic debate.

The campaign to cancel the conference outraged academic groups who characterized it as a challenge to their freedom. Last spring Federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear asked the council that funds social science research to reconsider its financial support of the conference in light of concerns from the Jewish community.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers is conducting an investigation into that request and of York's actions in relation to the conference.

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