To: Graduate students at the University of Waterloo

From: Vivek Goel

Date: October 24, 2023

Subject: How our University responds to world events

Dear University of Waterloo community, 

Since I last wrote to you about the violence occurring in Israel and in Gaza, many of you have reached out to share your thoughts about my words. Some have praised the comments, while others felt that they fell short of what was needed. I appreciate each and every person who shared their thoughts with us – the issue of Israel and Palestine and the recurring violence in this region galvanizes many of us to speak, but we must also listen. 

I’d like to make it clear that the decision by the Israeli government to cut off food, water and electricity from the innocent civilians of Gaza has had, and continues to have, horrific consequences. I have watched the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the soaring death toll there with great sadness and horror. The number of innocent Palestinian citizens who have been lost in this conflict is unacceptable. The United Nations has called for the immediate cessation of hostilities and unimpeded access to deliver aid to the citizens of Gaza. All parties in such conflicts should abide by the rules of international law and the Geneva Conventions which establish standards for humanitarian treatment in war.   

I reiterate my condemnation of the terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of many Israelis and the taking of hostages. This attack targeted innocent civilians because of their identity and because of where they live. These deaths were unacceptable and heartbreaking. 

As I shared at Senate yesterday there are important questions for the University at times like this: when should an institution like ours comment on international events? How does the University decide when to speak, and what to say? Is the University taking political positions? Where is the line between the freedom to speak and the necessity of creating safe spaces on our campuses for all of the people who study, work and teach here? 

We have heard from the Minister of Colleges and Universities on this issue. Minister Dunlop has shared her expectations with our community: that University leaders protect your ability to express your ideas without impediment, but also that alongside this freedom comes the responsibility for exercising it. The Minister has emphasized that the freedom to speak does not mean that there is freedom from the consequences of that speech. The University of Waterloo will continue to follow the requirements of the Ontario government for our free speech policy.   

Those requirements are based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.  They are listed in Ministry’s statement as:  

  • Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry. 
  • The university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive. 
  • While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views. 
  • Speech that violates the law is not allowed. 

Academic institutions do not take stands on issues outside their scope. This approach is based on the Kalven Report, which underlies the development of the Chicago principles. The report states:  

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.” 

Some of you have expressed that our recent statements took one side or the other. Our intent was not to take sides but to support members of our community in this difficult time. I sincerely regret and apologize for statements that have been seen as hurtful for some members of our community.  

Our main priority when considering if, when and how the University should respond is our community. We try to centre you, our faculty, staff and students, in everything we do – including responding to world events. But I know that processes or standard practices can always be made better. With this in mind, we will undertake a review of how we make decisions about commenting on world events.  

I believe it is essential that we revisit our principles that guide academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the issuing of statements.  

Waterloo remains committed to protecting the right to free expression and at the direction of the Provincial government, has developed Policy 8, which articulated exactly what that means for our community in practical terms. We submit a yearly report to the Provincial government which summarizes any complaints makes under this Policy. I urge those who are speaking about this issue to read this Policy closely and to please continue to centre the experiences of those who are directly affected by this terrible violence. While we have this Policy to guide us, what I hope we are all considering first and foremost is that some of our friends, classmates and colleagues are scared and in pain. Anything any of us say about this issue should be framed with empathy and compassion. 

Thank you again to those who have shared their thoughts with me these past few weeks. 


Vivek Goel

Vivek Goel
President and Vice-Chancellor
Office of the President

2023 communications to graduate students