Randy Boyagoda appointed U of T’s provostial adviser on civil discourse

Photo of Randy Boyagoda

(photo by Derek Shapton)

Professor Randy Boyagoda has been appointed the University of Toronto’s first provostial adviser on civil discourse.

A faculty member in the department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Science and a noted novelist, essayist, book critic and scholar, Boyagoda will serve an 18-month term effective Jan. 1, 2024.

He will establish a working group that will lead community consultations and develop a plan for tri-campus events, resources and other initiatives for students, faculty and librarians to engage in and promote productive and respectful dialogue on all kinds of topics. The group will also learn from other institutions around the world that are pursuing their own efforts with respect to civil discourse.

“I was very glad to have been invited by the provost to take up this appointment,” Boyagoda said, adding that he’s looking forward to fostering “a tri-campus conversation in a variety of formats and scales that invite students and faculty to live out civil discourse.

“As part of that, we’ll be drawing on and benefiting from the excellent programming, teaching and research already taking place in this respect, in departments and programs across our three campuses.”

Boyagoda, who will continue to serve as vice-dean, undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts & Science, has previously served as principal and vice-president of St. Michael’s College and as acting vice-provost, faculty and academic life. He has also served as president of PEN Canada, the national chapter of the international non-profit organization that celebrates literature, defends freedom of expression and aids writers in peril.

“I am certain that Professor Boyagoda’s combination of skills and knowledge will serve the university well in this important role,” said Trevor Young, U of T’s vice-president and provost. “I am grateful to him for his willingness to serve as the provostial adviser on civil discourse.”

Young noted that U of T President Meric Gertler addressed the issue of civil discourse at a meeting of the university’s Governing Council in December, saying: “Disagreements on our campuses can and will be heated. But they cannot be allowed to descend into hateful, demeaning or harassing behaviour. Our university must demonstrate to the world how civil, informed debate about difficult issues can be conducted.”

Boyagoda is well-suited to the task of helping to guide the university in answering President Gertler’s call, Young said.

Boyagoda has grappled with high-profile issues around free speech and civil discourse in his own writing and scholarship, including teaching a graduate seminar last fall – “The Satanic Verses and the Public Life of Books” – that considered the impact of author Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel.

“What’s important with civil discourse is to create the conditions, inside and outside the classroom, especially at a place as inherently and variously diverse as our university, for discussions that acknowledge difference while working towards shared understandings,” Boyagoda said. “This matters throughout our shared life on campus, and not just when it comes to the most divisive issues of a given moment.”

Ultimately, he said, the goal is to create the conditions for members of the university community to have the willingness and capacity to engage productively with people who hold viewpoints opposite to their own. This might involve public events, teaching fellowships, undergraduate, graduate and faculty research opportunities and other ideas and projects that emerge from consultations.

“When I was principal of St. Michael’s College, I would propose to incoming students that it was so very important to approach your years at university as an exciting and demanding opportunity to do more than just think for yourself – which strikes me as a lonely, boring, self-confirming exercise. To my mind, university is a time and space to discern who you want to think with, who you want to think against, and how to do so, with others, for the greater good,” Boyagoda said.

“Doing this difficult thing, together, and for the greater good: that’s what civil discourse is all about.”

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