Should the University of Calgary have stayed quiet on Tom Flanagan’s child porn comments?

·National Affairs Reporter

As the fury and outrage over former Conservative adviser Tom Flanagan comes to rest, new criticism is being leveled against the university that employs him, and their decision to pan the controversial professor in the twilight of his career.

Flanagan, a soon-to-be-former politics professor at the University of Calgary, said during a discussion at the University of Lethbridge last week that viewers of child pornography weren't hurting anybody and questioned whether they should be imprisoned for their actions.

Here is the most scurrilous of his comments:

I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures … It is a real issue of personal liberty. To what extent do we put people in jail for doing something for which they do not harm another person?

[ Related: Flanagan to retire from U. of Calgary after child porn comments ]

The comments were met with a barrage of outrage, specifically from associations connected to Flanagan. Political parties including Alberta's Wildrose Alliance cut bait and CBC News dropped him as a commentator. But it is the University of Calgary's comparably measured comment that now raises question.

Here is President Elizabeth Cannon's standing statement:

Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday absolutely do not represent the views of the University of Calgary. In the university’s view, child pornography is not a victimless crime. All aspects of this horrific crime involve the exploitation of children. Viewing pictures serves to create more demand for these terrible images, which leads to further exploitation of defenseless children.

Tom Flanagan has been on a research and scholarship leave from the University of Calgary since January of 2013. Tom Flanagan will remain on leave and will retire from the university on June 30, 2013. Flanagan had submitted his letter of retirement on Jan. 3, 2013.

A Calgary Herald editorial written by two University of Calgary professors is now calling into question how appropriate it was for the institution to release such a statement.

Politics professor Rainer Knopff and economics professor Curtis Eaton are calling for the university to apologize to their outgoing associate.

Knopff and Eaton wrote:

[U]niversities are supposed to be institutions of careful and deliberate analysis, where facts and context are thoroughly investigated before reaching conclusions. In this case, the university failed to measure up.

Knopff and Eaton make several interesting points. For one, was it appropriate for the university to offer opposition to Flanagan's comments, considering it "implements academic freedom in part by not adopting official institutional positions on the many controversies debated by its professors?"

[ More Brew: Has the Tom Flanagan hatred gone too far? ]

A second point raises the inappropriateness of announcing Flanagan's impending retirement. If the decision had been made in early January and did not necessitate a public announcement at the time, why does it bear comment now?

"There can be only one reason: that the university wanted publicly to distance itself from this embarrassing employee," the professors wrote in the Herald.

One would love to know the university's opinion on these comments — made by their own staff, nonetheless. But a request for comment by Yahoo! Canada News was directed back to Cannon's original statement. Not further insight is expected from the university at this point.

Flanagan himself has spoken out about the incident, describing it as a trap set by members of Idle No More. The comments came in a tangential moment during a discussion about First Nations rights and the Indian Act.

Flanagan wrote in the National Post that he failed to identify the moment as an ambush and continued to speak as if he were discussing an academic issue.

In 45 years of university teaching, I have tried to deal with every question my students have asked, so I forged ahead here, unaware that this was a trap, not a bona fide question — a dumb mistake for someone of my age and experience.

If Flanagan was truly acting in the role of an academic and educator, does his institution have a responsibility to stand behind him? Perhaps, but with every other of Flanagan’s associations quick to voice their opposition, silence from the university could have been viewed as tacit approval.

Say what you will about the appropriateness, and accuracy, of Flanagan's comments, perhaps a University of Calgary professor with 45 years of experience deserved a quiet exit from the academic world. Or perhaps the university had a right to protect its own image.

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