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Profs turn back on Somerville

Protesters throw wrench into honorary degree

DEVIL IN A DARK ROBE. A protest greeted honorary doctorate recipient Margaret Somerville on Jun 19; counterprotestors who side with Somerville against same-sex marriage were all in creepy masks. Credit: (Joshua Meles)

More than a dozen Ryerson professors attended the Jun 19 graduate studies convocation wearing rainbow beads, buttons, flags, stickers and leis as a silent protest against the university’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to controversial McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville.

Five professors remained outside with protesters, refusing to enter the convocation. Prior to the ceremony close to a hundred students and other Somerville critics gathered in Ryerson’s quad as the convocational procession came through. Graduating students were given flyers: “Stand up against discrimination — turn your back on homophobia. Turn your back to Margaret Somerville.”

An outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, Somerville’s award has been met with intense controversy over the past few weeks. Ryerson’s Awards And Ceremonials Committee Of Academic Council took the unusual step of meeting to discuss rescinding her degree, though they did not.

In a carefully worded letter, the committee implied that if they had known of Somerville’s negative stance on same-sex marriage they wouldn’t have given her the honorary doctorate, but to withdraw the opportunity now would infringe on academic freedoms.

Ryerson president Sheldon Levy issued a public statement the week before the convocation. “Awarding an honorary degree to professor Somerville is not meant to be hurtful or disrespectful to members of the Ryerson community, the public and the gay and lesbian community. Ryerson is an open and tolerant community that celebrates diversity in all forms. The university completely supports equality and the legal rights of individuals to live free of discrimination.”

Inside, when Somerville stood to receive her doctor of science degree, several members of the faculty stood and turned their backs to her. Somerville received applause and a standing ovation.

In her opening remarks Somerville addressed the ethical concept of moral regret.

“What it requires is that when, for reasons of ethics, something we do or stands for hurts others, even though ethics requires that we do and stand for that, we should still regret the hurt that it causes. As we all know, some people are hurt by some of my views, and I want to say that although I believe I must stand by those views, I genuinely regret the hurt that that causes them.”

Mandy Ridley, RyePride’s summer coordinator, says this is an issue that won’t go away. A petition with 1,700 signatures was presented to Levy last week. Ridley hopes to continue collecting names, although a quick peek shows that although there are more than 1,900 signatures, antiqueer protestors are now adding their own names (or fake ones) and comments to the petition, too.

Perhaps they are friends of the three men wearing devil masks who Ridley says approached the peaceful protest Monday morning.

“They were pushing a stroller that said, ‘Say no to same-sex marriage.’ We asked them to take off their masks but they wouldn’t so we positioned a rainbow flag in front of them.”

Ryerson has invited Somerville to come back to campus in the fall to address the controversy, and she has accepted. While Levy sees this as a chance for “open discussion,” Ridley and RyePride see it as another opportunity to protest homophobia.