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McGill tells students to stay away from hot spots

A more nuanced statement of practice about student travel is in the works

BY BALBIR GILL | NOV 03 2008

A new travel directive issued by McGill University to help keep its students out of harm’s way has come under fire from some of the university’s professors and students.

A memo prohibiting student travel to areas that have a level 3 (avoid non-essential travel) or level 4 (avoid all travel) advisory from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was circulated to McGill deans in September. Several regions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia fall into these categories. The policy affects all student travel for internships or research at McGill.

“The directive is destructive to our program,” said Stephen Saideman, a professor of political science and holder of the Canada Research Chair in International Security and Ethnic Conflict. His students often travel to regions affected by civil war or ethnic conflict as part of their studies. Some of his students are in the process of planning trips to Lebanon and Pakistan – travel which is prohibited under the recent guidelines.

An editorial in student newspaper the McGill Tribune warned that this could potentially hurt McGill’s reputation in international programs and research. “Blanket restrictions of travel don’t make students any safer. Countries with level two travel warnings can be just as dangerous as their ‘high risk’ counterparts – ultimately, the specific situation and the preparedness of travelers dictate their safety.”

A more nuanced statement of practice about student travel is in the works and should be out soon, said Morton Mendelson, McGill’s deputy provost of student life and learning. He added that the current directive’s aim is to ensure consistent travel guidelines for students across departments and faculties. “There were varying practices across the university (concerning DFAIT travel advisories).”

Dr. Mendelson said that even if a student were to sign a liability waiver before travel, the Quebec civil code would leave the university vulnerable if the student came to harm during the trip. Waivers in Quebec do not offer the same kind of liability protection to universities as they do in the rest of Canada.

Concerned faculty members hope that the upcoming guidelines will loosen these travel restrictions. “It is an absolutely essential part of their professional development that they get field experience in the kind of places that might have travel advisories,” said Rex Brynen, a McGill political science professor and director of the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies. “Telling political science and international development studies students that they can’t travel to conflict-affected countries is a bit like telling medical students that they can’t work with sick patients.”

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