McMaster University's decision to suspend the activities of the Redsuits group after discovering a songbook of vulgar chants is receiving a mixed reaction on campus, with some students accusing the administration of being too heavy-handed.
The songbook contains about 25 cheers and includes mentions of rape, murder, incest and bestiality as well as numerous misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic references.
The university’s administration announced Thursday it was banning the group, which leads Welcome Week events and organizes programming for engineering students throughout the year, from all on-campus activities pending a probe by an external investigator.
The decision also bars the McMaster Engineering Society from leading Welcome Week events next fall.
Several student organizations applauded the move, including the McMaster Students Union (MSU), which released a statement on the suspension on Thursday afternoon.
The student union “supports the University’s decision to uphold the environment of inclusivity, diversity and respect that student of the institution expect,” MSU President David Campbell said in the statement.
“Given the available information, the move to immediately suspend any and all Redsuit [activities]… is both prudent and necessary.”
Ruling called acceptable, 'unfair'
The decision has provoked diverging reactions among McMaster students, including those within the faculty of engineering.
Engineering major Aseeb Syed said he was shocked by the “explicit and quite sexual” content contained in the chants.
“I accept the fact that the president has banned them from Welcome Week,” he said. “I’m thinking of it from the perspective of immigrant students coming in. What will they think of students in Canada if they saw actions like this the first week they’re coming in?”
However, other students said that, though they found the songbook highly offensive, they don’t believe the entire group should be suspended because of the chants.
“I don’t exactly think that all the Redsuits knew about it,” said Shaun Chiasson, a fourth-year engineering student. “I don’t think that they all endorse it or sing the chants. I’m pretty sure that it’s not something they all do.”
“I’ve heard that a lot of engineering students who are at Mac right now don’t even know about the book,” said Veronique Giguere, a medical radiation sciences student. “I feel it’s been a little unfair that they’d get cut from Welcome Week for something they didn’t have a part in.”
The songbook became a topic of discussion during Thursday night’s debate between candidates vying to become the next MSU president, an event that was live-streamed on TheSil.ca.
“I don’t think all engineers were condemned in this, but rather the act itself,” said candidate and MSU diversity services director Israa Ali.
“I’m very much satisfied with the stand that the university has taken,” she told the audience.
“Given the current information, I stand by the university’s suspension decision,” said Jacob Brodka, another MSU leadership candidate.
“I’m curious to see the types of conversations that will take place moving forward to ensure that engineering students who are paying service fees for programming do receive that programming moving forward. “
It’s unclear how old the chants are or when they were last sung at Redsuit events. However, the songbook, obtained by CBC Hamilton, suggests the cheers were compiled in 2010 — by students who appear to have graduated last year — but dated from many years earlier.
Gord Arbeau, McMaster’s director of public and university relations, said university officials aren’t certain whether the chants were used during Welcome Week 2013.
“We don’t have any direct evidence that it was used in the past year,” he told CBC Hamilton on Friday.
The songbook came to the university’s attention “in the past few days,” Arbeau said, but he declined to give any information what led to the discovery.
He said he doesn't know how long the investigation will take, nor the consequences that may result from the probe.
"We don’t want to presuppose anything in advance."
This isn’t the first time an organization of McMaster engineering students has come under fire for allegedly publishing sexist, homophobic and violent content in print.
During the 2005-2006 academic year, a student group called the Coalition for Equitable Social Change (CESC) called for The Plumbline, a humour newsletter funded by the McMaster Engineering Society, to fold because of its “degrading and discriminatory practices.”
In a letter to the editor published in a November 2005 edition of McMaster student newspaper The Silhouette, CESC campaigner Jesse Sturgeon condemned a satirical treatment of rape that had been published in a recent Plumbline issue.
“The Plumbline doesn’t cause discriminatory and degrading behaviour, but it does support it, perhaps at times unintentionally,” wrote Sturgeon. “We oppose The Plumbline because it is symptomatic of the systemic violence that has been deemed tradition in the engineering faculty, a type of tradition that was jettisoned by other engineering schools in Ontario.”
'The material in this book is repugnant goes well beyond any other kinds of material, songs or chants that we’ve ever come across.'—Gord Arbeau, McMaster University
However, Arbeau said the songbook scandal is unprecedented at Mac.
“The material in this book is repugnant goes well beyond any other kinds of material, songs or chants that we’ve ever come across,” he said.
In a Thursday statement, the McMaster Engineering Society slammed the content of the songbook and said the organization's leadership has worked hard in recent years to foster a more inclusive culture.
“The McMaster Engineering Society and its leadership has spent the past several years improving its image on campus and within the faculty, and providing more services to a wider student base,” the statement said.
"The MES would like to extend its deepest apologies to any individuals or groups that may have been offended by the document’s content, and strongly affirms that these attitudes will not be tolerated within the MES."