By Josh Wingrove
“How Ryerson failed Margaret Somerville,” was the headline of an editorial in The Globe and Mail in June. The article slammed Ryerson for its choice to give an honorary degree to McGill University’s Margaret Somerville, who opposes same-sex parenting. More specifically, it slammed Ryerson for standing on the fence of the issue.
The on-campus debate engrossed faculty, staff and students, catching the attention of the Globe, Toronto Star, Maclean’s and the iconic Rex Murphy. Activists were further enraged by the chosen date — Somerville was getting her degree during Gay Pride Week.
Somerville said protesters misconstrued her position on children’s rights to label her as anti-gay rights. She supports gay marriage, but believes children thrive with one parent of each sex, making both same-sex and single parenthood regressive social institutions.
“In the same sex marriage situation, we’ve got competing rights. We’ve got children’s rights,” Somerville said.
Her opponents said otherwise. They called her a homophobe and a bigot. They called her a disgrace.
“Someone with that background now has a Ryerson degree, something the rest of us work very hard for. Now she can list it as her achievement,” said Nora Loreto, vice president of education at the Ryerson Students’ Union.
It all began in March when Ryerson’s Academic Council submitted the list of award recipients. Past names include Nelson Mandela, Adrienne Clarkson and Peter Mansbridge. Ryerson gives an honorary award at each of its faculty graduations.
Somerville’s name had been put forth in 2004 before being approved in March. Two weeks later, her controversial views surfaced.
“One search online shows a pretty concerning background … it just seems to me that no one Googled this woman,” said Loreto, who dug deeper at the urging of a faculty member.
And so started the campaign. The executive of the RSU and RyePRIDE, joined by members of the gay community such as Rev. Brent Hawkes — who performed Ontario’s first gay marriage — stirred the pot. As the editorials ran, Ryerson was forced to react.
“The whole thing kind of exploded,” Somerville said.
Somerville told Maclean’s she nearly withdrew her name until a personal phone call from President Sheldon Levy — where he said she really was welcome at Ryerson — changed her mind. Levy declined further comment on the call.
Dave Mason, president of Ryerson’s faculty association, said he’d be surprised if Levy had urged Somerville to attend.
“Either (Levy) is far more duplicitous than anyone has led me to believe or that’s not what he said,” Mason said.
Regardless, Somerville came. Determined, she stepped into the lights and accepted her award. Several faculty members — including Mason — turned their backs.
“Shame on you,” yelled someone from the crowd before being drowned out by a wave of “shh”es from across the room.
“The audience just clapped and clapped … (Levy) leaned forward and said, ‘well, that’s one response we didn’t expect,’” Somerville said.
Mason said some of the applause was for Somerville, some of it for the protest behind her.
After the ceremony and a brief lunch with Levy, Somerville returned to Montreal, clutching her eighth degree.
Her supporters said the debate was a matter of academic freedom, throwing Levy a line to defend the university’s controversial decision.
“Part of a university is about healthy and vigourous debate on issues,” Levy said, adding he supports freedom of expression.
Loreto said Somerville is free to study and publish at will. Ryerson just doesn’t have to honour her, she added.The university’s administration should have admitted they made a mistake, said Ryerson politics professor Bryan Evans, who sat on the Board of Governors during the process.
That would have been the end of it. Instead, it dragged on for a while … from a purely PR point of view, we made a mistake,” Evans said.
Somerville has her regrets.
“I genuinely regret the hurt it caused … having people disagree with me is standard. Having people disagree with me like this, and to have it come out the way it did, was really unexpected,” she said.
She said the Ryerson fiasco likely meant this was her last honorary degree. She doesn’t blame anyone, but implores those opposed to her views to explore the distinction between supporting gay rights while opposing same-sex parenting versus simply opposing gay rights.
Somerville, who will give the high-profile Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto this fall, couldn’t imagine Ryerson having chosen her if they could have anticipated the reaction. Mason agreed, adding once she was nominated, there was no easy way out. “
The university had inadvertently put itself between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
Mason said the university will spend more time with candidates, demand in-depth research — similar to a pros and cons list in last year’s chancellor search — while including students in the process. The changes, Mason said, will make sure this doesn’t happen again. As far as he’s concerned, the debate is done and the time has passed.
“The university did the wrong thing. Let’s work hard and have it not happen again,” Mason said.