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Linda Franklin

One of the many challenges Canadian executives are facing in responding to the conflict is a pronounced generational divide within their organizations. Many younger employees see Israeli and Palestinian issues as an extension of the battle against colonialism, or for indigenous rights at home. This is a particular concern for universities, hospitals and other third-sector organizations.

Linda Franklin is board chair for the William Osler Health Centre serving Brampton and surrounding communities west of Toronto, and past president of Colleges Ontario. We started our conversation discussing what’s behind this generational divide in post-secondary institutions.

Linda Franklin: There are a number of things going on.

I do think, and focus groups show this, very few members of younger generations know a lot about the history of Israel. They all got taught some basic World War Two history, and that included some references to the Holocaust. But beyond that, if you ask them to tell you anything about how things started with the Israeli state, with Gaza, the Arab Israeli War, none of those things are in their minds at all.

And so their starting point, it seems, is much further along in history – and starts around the time of the Israeli push into the West Bank with settlements.

Chris Hall: What do you conclude from that?

LF: I think folks in our generation have an easier time contextualizing what’s going on there in the fullness of history than our children do. Part of what that creates, I think, is a willingness (by the younger generations) to use language like “apartheid state” and “genocide” when describing Israeli actions. All sorts of language that I don’t think would ever cross our minds to use. I think we understand the triggers in Israel and among the Jewish population worldwide.

I don’t think our sons and daughters get that at all.

CH: Is it possible they also come at it from a different point of view than older Canadians because of their experiences around issues such as colonization and how indigenous people have been treated?

LF: Absolutely. I think that’s true.

But I do think that there’s some framing of this issue, around apartheid, around colonization, and more current issues of racism and exclusion that, for them, frames this issue in a way that it just doesn’t for us.

CH: How should academic leaders and others respond to what is coming out around this conflict from students in particular?

LF: Yeah, it’s a really hard question to answer.

I raised the University of Chicago Protocol because, quite some time ago, the university just basically said, “We are focused on our academic mission. We are not an institution that has a role in taking positions on political issues and we will never do that.”

So that has shielded that institution quite a bit. And because they were so clear, so early on, they have been spending a lot of time advising institutions in the States, and some here, around how you go about doing that.

Now the problem I think in the immediate case is it’s tough because a lot of these institutions went out with messages on Ukraine, right? And so, for the students, there’s a real disconnect between how you can be so clear on Ukraine and then stay silent on what’s happening in Gaza.

I think there’s a moment in time after this issue when institutions might want to rethink whether or not they follow a version of the University of Chicago Protocol and just say going forward, “we are not going to be commenting on political issues, however challenging or relevant they are in society at large so that we can focus on our academic mission.” Because I think you see a real problem emerging for the institutions that have gone out with messages. Nothing is enough, right?

It’s the same, frankly, in the hospital system. We have Palestinian doctors. We have Israeli doctors. We have people who treat patients who are both Palestinian and Israeli and we’ve had arguments in operating rooms.

People feel very passionately about this. Our hospitals put out three statements while I was away on vacation, none of them really did the job.

Now we’ve caught ourselves in the middle of this.

And so I think the Chicago Protocol is a better longer-term strategy. Do you really want to be an institution who every time something happens in the world, has to say something?

CH: What you’re saying I think applies as well to corporations. One of the things that’s emerging is the importance of listening with empathy and the importance of providing a safe space for people to express their views on this very difficult and complicated topic. To know they’ve been heard. I know you’ve talked about strategies for down the road, but if you’re looking today at the conflict, it’s clear it’s not going to end tomorrow. What advice do you have?

LF: I think a lot is going to depend on what the institutions feel their role in society is. So, there’s one way of looking at it that says yes: provide a safe space and let people say what they need to say and be empathetic about it. But I think if you’re doing that, you end up with a lot of one-sided dialogues.

There’s been no way to bring the two groups together, so I do think that there’s some need to think about our university spaces for open and honest dialogue about difficult subjects, where we have a significant disagreement and where we structure conversations to ensure people don’t feel unsafe.

Can you have forums where moderators engage people with different points of views successfully, and challenge viewpoints? Not in a hostile way and not in a way that leaves everybody in the room feeling more vulnerable? And that’s tough to do on this issue.

CH: What pressure is on leaders to manage the expectations of a younger generation that feels as passionately as they do about this issue while staying true to corporate values?

LF: I think it’s an important question to address because I think these sorts of issues, if you let them run in the institution, don’t stop there.

The world has become a very challenging place and I think everything leads to something else.

I do think it’s incumbent on the institutions to try to figure out how to manage, not just this issue, but these large issues going forward, with integrity.

It’s also why I keep coming back to the Chicago model because I think you’re never going to know what’s around the corner. If you are constantly distracted by issues that aren’t part of your core mission, but for which you’ve created expectations of response around – then you’re in trouble. The fact is you’re never going to have unanimity of views on these tough issues amongst all students, faculty, administration, and donors. So, wading in feels like a lose-lose proposition, to be honest.