My secular convocation speech

I’ve had a few requests to post my GFC Executive Committee speech from the Oct. 27 meeting, so here it is (included is the addendum I submitted to Garry Bodnar after the meeting).

GFC Exec Committee Speech – Ian Bushfield – 27 October 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, and esteemed members of the GFC Executive Committee, thank-you for giving us this opportunity to present this issue before you today.

The issue we bring before you is one of a desire for inclusion. As it stands today, I would feel unwelcome at the current convocation ceremonies.

By charging me to use my degree “for the glory of God,” I feel that my belief system, which does not include belief in any form of deity, is being ignored by this University’s administration.

As a publicly funded university, I felt, upon entering this school, that no one worldview would be favoured over any other. As I learned of this issue, I grew to realize that work was needed to enshrine equality in this institution.

Tradition is often trumpeted as the reason to retain the current charge. And tradition is important, on its one hundredth year anniversary, the University of Alberta should tread lightly to both progress into the twenty-first century while retaining its roots. But these roots should not be preserved when they marginalize segments of the university’s population.

The original convocation ceremonies failed to recognize the status of women as students, by referring only to the men of the audience. As man was to person then, theist is to person now.

If the argument for tradition is to be held over all other rational discourse, than this university shall never achieve its goal of becoming a top 20 by 2020 as schools like the University of Calgary, British Columbia and even Toronto have recognized the diversity of their graduating classes by secularizing their ceremonies.

This issue is not about promoting an atheistic worldview. We are not asking to have the chancellor denounce faith, belief or the existence of metaphysical realms in the ceremony. We merely want to be welcome at a ceremony that every student earns through their labours.

Many Christians and theists support our statements as well. While some took offence to my wording in the Gateway, they still agreed with my underlying point about the need for inclusiveness. Further, Andrew Chan of Cross Impact is quoted in the Edmonton Journal as saying that “nowadays, universities don’t espouse [Christian Values] at all….Christians who attend this university know they are attending a non-Christian university.” Further, Paul Tan of the UofA Navigators is quoted in the Canadian Press as saying “In all reality this is a secular campus and to remove that (reference) doesn’t impinge on the honour of God in any way.”

I also would like to point out that we are not trying to rid society of religion. Many churches now hold convocation ceremonies, filled with religious imagery and language, where graduates can attend in private. Christian high school students, looking for a truly religious experience through school have more options, by opting to attend Concordia, Kings University College or Newman Theological College among other private religious institutions.

We are not looking to change the fundamental makeup of this campus, or to restrict people’s rights and abilities. We are merely trying to achieve a convocation which accurately portrays the existing student community.

So when we request a secular convocation, what we ask for is a ceremony to which everyone feels welcome and included, because no groups are given special priviledge over any other. To appeal to a complete audience, the current charge would have to be ammended such that the chancellor now charges graduates to use their degree to the glory of “God, Allah, Yahweh, Zeus, Thor, Jupiter, Vishnu, and so forth, and none of the above.” At which point the charge becomes both cumbersome, and ultimately trivialized.

So I ask, why do we retain it with such a diverse and multicultural audience at convocation?

Addendum: I would like to add that the UAAA is open to a reworded convocation charge which perhaps retains the secular intent of the charge, while removing the religious language. We heard several good suggestions at the meeting on 27 October, and welcome a debate on the best inclusive terminology to take the University through the next millennium.