U of T's Centre for Ethics takes mandate of open discussion to heart with public events

December 15, 2016 by Peter Boisseau - A&S News

As the crowd stayed to mingle with each other and the panellists after a lively public forum on Canadian electoral reform, Markus Dubber stood grinning in the midst of it all.

Dubber is director of the Centre for Ethics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, which had just hosted another successful public event on a hot button issue, throwing academics and experts together with other members of the public in an unscripted exchange of ideas and points of view.

“Some academic events tend to be extremely controlled and stylized, and people know what is going to happen,” said Dubber, a law professor on a mission to ensure the centre is a place where the public gets to fully engage and debate the issues of the day.

“I personally prefer events that have some element of unpredictability, because once there is uncertainty, it also means the experts are more likely to listen, and not just talk, and interesting things tend to happen.”

When he advertised the December 9 electoral reform event, Dubber tried to convey the sense it was an open discussion, and the overflow crowd who attended the forum at the Munk School of Global Affairs seemed to take that suggestion to heart.

Audience members started shouting out comments and questions before the panellists even finished their opening remarks. Panel members tangled with each other. People in the audience debated among themselves. And everyone seemed to enjoy it.

“It was a very refreshing discussion,” audience member John Rae said afterwards.

Rae brought squabbling panellists up short when he stood and pointed out the 300-plus page report published with great fanfare on December 1 by a parliamentary committee on electoral reform was not made available in a format accessible to people who are blind.

“It kind of rings hollow that you are all talking about the report and I’m still waiting to read the damn thing,” Rae told the panel, which included committee member Ruby Sahota, the Liberal MP for Brampton-North.

Panel member Avvy Go, a U of T alumnus and director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said Rae’s comment illustrated the need to ensure the electoral reform debate engages all marginalized groups.

“Forums like this are important because we need to make sure these kinds of issues get addressed,” said Go. “We can’t ensure equal opportunity if everyone is not even at the table.”

Dubber announced there would be another event on January 16, 2017 examining the U.S. election and its implications for Canada.

That event – jointly sponsored by the centre for Ethics and OISE – is next in a series by the centre that has impressed observers with wide open and frank exchanges between the public and academics on topical issues.

At the end of November, Dubber organized a “flash event” on short notice at U of T to debate the Toronto Police department’s Project Marie operation. While ostensibly aimed at discouraging public sex in Etobicoke’s Marie Curtis park, the police operation was widely branded as “homophobic.”

One journalist who attended that event tweeted it was a rare display of productive discussions between scholars and the public.

Dubber plans to follow up the Project Marie event with a discussion about public apologies and what they mean in a political context. He noted Toronto police recently apologized for gay bathhouse raids conducted in early 1980s, but then launched Project Marie shortly afterwards.

Ethical debates are a good platform for engagement between the University and the public because they raise questions of concern for everyone, not just academics, said Dubber.

And by involving the public in two-way conversations, the centre can play a part in the University’s commitment to community engagement.

“The public has to come to expect and look for these events. Hopefully they will help make it a little easier to get these conversations going.”