Secular convocation in the Journal

Things are rolling on the attempts to secularize the University of Alberta’s convocation. Today I was featured in an interview in the Edmonton Journal.

The article has a relatively objective tone, as the reporter did gather a few religious groups opinion, however, besides the evangelical Campus Alpha leader, most admit that it’s probably time to change the charge (which was to use your degrees “to the glory of God”).

On Monday, the General Faculties Council’s (the highest academic body on campus) executive committee is holding a special meeting to gather opinions from all sides on this issue. There will be two representatives from the Atheists and Agnostics there, as well as anyone the chaplain is willing to send, up to a dozen undergrads, and half a dozen grads, staff and faculty. In all, the meeting could take up to two hours if everyone shows up and speaks their full three minutes. At least there’s no debate on the issue (time wise I mean).

After Monday’s meeting, the issue will likely proceed to the full GFC (about 180 people) where it will be debated. Unfortunately that meeting is not until late November (after fall convocation), but we may just have a chance to change things for my spring convocation.

Here’s the full story (for when they rip it down from the web in 30 days):

Group wants God-free convocation
Society of University of Alberta students taking issue with line in graduation service
Keith Gerein, The Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON – A student group at the University of Alberta is fighting to make the school’s convocation ceremony a God-free event.

Specifically, the U of A Atheists and Agnostics society objects to one line in the service, when the chancellor charges graduates to use their degrees for “the glory of God and the honour of your country.”

The group is petitioning the university to either remove the line or change the wording to respect their “God-optional” views.

“We’d like to find some kind of alternative or get it out entirely,” said Ian Bushfield, president of the organization.

“What they are doing is basically implying that everyone who graduates from the university should be doing certain things with their degree, and this kind of charge requires a belief in something up to one-third of campus might not have.” Bushfield was referring to a national (Canadian Press Harris-Decima) survey conducted in May that found about 35 per cent of Canadians under 25 do not believe in a god.

The university is convening a special meeting Monday to hear arguments on the issue from interested campus groups.

Time will be allotted for undergraduate and graduate student leaders, professors, support staff, the chaplain’s association and Bushfield’s group.

“There will be a diversity of viewpoints,” said Deb Hammacher, associate vice-president of external relations. “We feel this is a decision the (U of A) community needs to make.”

A committee of the General Faculties Council is expected to debate the issue and make a recommendation on Nov. 3, with a vote to come three weeks later.

That vote will be too late to make changes to the upcoming fall convocation Nov.19-20, but could get things rolling in time for the 2009 spring event, Bushfield said.

He said he founded his group in the summer of 2007 after realizing there were up to 20 religious groups at the U of A — some of which plan to argue to the other side of the issue.

“I think of majority of people — Christians, Muslims — believe in something, and just because a minority has an issue, it shouldn’t be touched in any way,” said Pat O’Connor of Campus Alpha, formerly known as Ambassadors for Jesus. “We change too many things to be politically correct or keep everybody happy. We need to take a stand, and we definitely believe it should stay the way it is.”

It is unclear how long the “God” reference has been part of the convocation ceremony. The school was established as a secular institution, although many of the university’s founders, including the first president Henry Marshall Tory, were devout Christians.

Andrew Chan, of the group Christians in Action Bible Study, said he wouldn’t make a fuss if the controversial line was softened somehow, but believes the religious theme should remain part of convocation. “From my standpoint, the line has historical value because the U of A was founded on Christian beliefs,” Chan said. “Taking that out would take out a part of the university’s history.”

But Brett Sawchuk of Cross Impact, another Christian group, argued that such history is now essentially irrelevant.

Whatever Christian flavour the U of A may have had in its early days is no longer a part of the academic culture, he said.

“Nowadays, universities don’t espouse those values at all.”

That’s why Sawchuk was surprised to hear the “God” reference last June when he attended convocation to receive his bachelor of science degree.

“As believers, it means something to us Christians and other people who are religious, but taking it out is probably a more accurate portrayal of the university,” he said.

“Christians who attend the U of A know they are attending a non-Christian university.”

Bushfield agreed, saying that governmental, societal and educational intuitions around the country have altered their traditions in recent years to be more inclusive.

Just as efforts have been made to respect all kinds of religions, he believes the same should be done for those who choose to have none.

“We’re not a severely disadvantaged minority in the way other communities have been, but I still think there are existing prejudices, fears and misunderstandings in our society,” he said.

“Changing (the line) would be a way of acknowledging people who haven’t been recognized. It’s kind of like if the whole ceremony only referenced men and how great men are.”

He said many other Canadian universities, including Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal, have either removed religious references from their convocation charges, or never had any in the first place.

8 thoughts on “Secular convocation in the Journal”

  1. Good on you Ian! It’s absurd that we still have to fight to get these kinds of phrasing and practices removed from our public institutions or at least altered.

    I began my doctoral studies at UA but moved on to another university. Had I been there to get my degree, I’d have fumed on hearing that line during convocation. Never did attend convocation for any of my degrees. In retrospect, given your story, that was a good thing; there’s no telling what kind of trouble I’d have got myself into. 🙂

    1. IF I am not mistaken, UofA is not a “public” school. People paylarge amounts of money to attend their institution, nobody is being forced to go there. “Public” schools are when you are younger, and forced to attend school, and you do not pay money to attend those schools because the government REQUIRES you to attend those schools. If you do not like how they do the convocation, you do not need to attend their institution. I certainly would not go somewhere where I did not like something, especially when I am paying huge sums of mney to attend. There are plent of other universities that you can attend…

      1. Wrong. The UofA is a public school because it is heavily funded through tax-payer dollars. Public money should not go to imposing one viewpoint over others.

        They also don’t publish their convocation proceedings online, so there would be no way to know about issues like this prior to enrolment.

  2. It seems that CTV’s coverage version was a bit less unbiased. The reporter took a chunk of time to elaborate that religious references are found in the national anthem and the university’s motto (which was drawn from some epistle somewhere), and chose to test “student reactions” by showing two self-professed Christians professing their faith (although one said that he can fulfill his spiritual desires at church rather than on campus). On the flipside, Daryl MacIntyre framed it as a full-on proposed change, and the chaplain of St. Joe’s was caught in a gaffe (he said that the speech was already religiously neutral — we merely want it neutral with respect to one more god).

    It seems the media, while giving this exposure, is framing it in terms of a special-interest group crying persecution.

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