Tuesday, November 28, 1995

Christie Blatchford

Ryerson gutless in handling of Hannon

"That is the astonishing thing, isn't it?" -- Hooker prof Gerald Hannon on the fact he still has, at 51, paying customers

This line, delivered at a press conference yesterday with a bemused lift of the eyebrows, tells you pretty much everything you want to know about Gerald Hannon -- that he is an ironic, provocative showman with a big mouth and brass balls.

It also tells you, or me anyway, that probably, he is a marvellous teacher, the very sort that in my time at the Ryerson school for journalism (this was back in the days of sit-ins and the like, when I was invariably on the side of the administration and against my fellow students and their endless demonstrations) I would have fought with tooth and nail.

He would have driven me mad, I suspect, with his squishy liberal ideas (on prostitution, for instance) and his offensive views on adults having sex with children (the tripe that this can be noble and enriching for the kids), but his frankness and, dare I say it, his courage would have ensured my presence in his class and guaranteed my attention.

That being the point -- he is a teacher, after all, and paid as such by my alma mater -- why has Ryerson Polytechnic University abruptly suspended Hannon pending the results of a school inquiry into his conduct?

The answer is as clear as Hannon's opinions. The school, it seems has been intimidated by the publicity surrounding Hannon and the mewling discomfort of all decent folks everywhere in defending freedom of expression when the speaker says such darned outrageous stuff. As one of his students, 25-year-old Adam Hunt, said yesterday, Ryerson essentially caved in to "quell the fears of suburban moms and dads" and in doing so, forgot that "the kids have grown up now."

Hannon, and most of those who assembled yesterday to support him at the (nice touch, this) Buddies in Bad Times theatre, expressed their disappointment that a university, where freedom of speech should be paramount, would so cower before public opinion and suspend someone who merely stands accused, and of nothing more than holding repellant views.

Where, for heaven's sakes, have these people all been? Where was all this concern for free speech when Philippe Rushton was forced, because of unruly protests by students who didn't like his ideas on race and intelligence (who did like them?), into teaching by videotaped lectures? Where was all this angst when the University of Toronto dared to hire Jeanne Cannizzo to teach an anthropology course hard on the heels of the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit she curated at the Royal Ontario Museum, and student thugs harassed her into quitting?

The bottom line is that Canadian college campuses haven't been bastions of either free speech or courage for years and years. Neither, in my experience have they ever been institutions of great moral rectitude.

In my time at the Ryerson J-school, a history professor was sleeping with one of my best friends (note bene; as I recall it, she still got lousy marks) and a sociology professor used to brag about rubbing up against young men in the elevators, and in my husband's time there in another faculty, a professor who routinely befriended a girl student a term had to be taken aside and cautioned. No doubt, all our parents would have been outraged, had they known, but then that, in part, was the purpose of going to school, wasn't it -- to be exposed to ideas and experiences that weren't our parents'?

Gerald Hannon, by the by, has done none of the above, and not even his harshest critics have said otherwise. He has never mentioned his prostitution sideline in class, he says, and there's no evidence to the contrary; only occasionally, either in response to questions or to illustrate the merits of strong opinion journalism, has he discussed his views on what he disingenously calls "intergenerational sex", and this, remember, not with grade schoolers, but with adults, young men and women who are, for the most part, old enought to drink, drive, vote and have sex, all four at once if they wish. Certainly, there's no evidence he has been using his classroom as a platform for his views. Two published articles in 17 years hardly make him a crusader for pedophilia.

What we're left with is a genuine eccentric, a tweedy, rumpled and engaging man with outlandish opinions and a steadfast insistence on expressing them. Gerald Hannon's mistake, in his own words, was to have "a controversial idea in an institution that doesn't welcome them." And isn't it always the way? Now that I'm two decades out of Ryerson, I've finally found a cause I'd protest and a sit-in I'd join?

Read Christie Blatchford Tuesday through Friday

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Created: January 9, 1997
Last modified: February 8, 1997

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