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In my opinion

Reflections on the tragedy of Flight 752

As we try to make sense of the senseless, we should derive comfort from the fact that universities are much-needed instruments of cultural and social connection.

BY CHERYL FOY | JAN 17 2020

Like many Canadians, I am preoccupied with Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, which exploded and crashed just outside of Tehran on January 8 after being shot down by Iranian missiles procured from Russia. All 176 passengers and crew members aboard were killed. As has been widely reported, many of the victims had connections to Canada’s university community.

Nothing in the natural world is separate or standalone. Our world, indeed our universe, is a massive web of interconnectedness. Nothing is black or white but rather a continuum of shades. Seen as a whole, the world is terrifyingly chaotic. We break the world down into tiny pieces because that’s the way we can manage to digest it, study it and understand it. We create artificial and manageable tribal divisions between us as humans because it makes us feel more connected, more important. We like people that do the same things as us and do them the way that we do because we feel reinforced and more comfortable.

The notion of community itself excludes those who aren’t part of the community. The very nature of exclusion makes inclusion more desirable and makes us feel more important. Fear and stress increase these tendencies to group and to exclude.

We can never forget, however, that it’s our own limited capacity as human beings that causes us to see and create a divided world. All that we do must be done with the understanding that breaking the world into small pieces serves our own individual needs for reinforcement. We must retain that understanding so that we do not forget to be humble and so that we do not assume that the little truths that we hopefully uncover along the way are the only truths … so that we do not assume that there is only one way to do something.

We must retain that understanding so that we do not make the mistake of assuming that what may make us comfortable as individuals or a group does not dictate what is right or correct on a broader scale. As individuals and communities, all that we do should be done in the context of striving for connection – connecting pieces of knowledge achieved through research, connecting our social groups, connecting our communities, connecting our countries.

Technology both exacerbates and ameliorates our condition. It is technology that, within hours of Flight 752 crashing, bombards the rest of the world with information and misinformation, images, sounds, opinions and commentary. In this way, technology enhances our sense of chaos, increases our sense that our world is falling apart. Technology brings us closer to events that would formerly have felt distant and removed.

But technology connects us too and it gives us more sources of information. It is technology that allows students in Iran to post videos of their protests against the missile attack on Flight 752 on Twitter and YouTube well before the story is picked up by major news outlets, thereby allowing us to distinguish between the state and the people and create connections on a human level. Technology allows crowdfunding so that people who are affected by an event and want to help can make a direct contribution. When used for good, technology creates endless possibilities for connection, collaboration and understanding.

In the week after the tragedy, the Ontario Tech community held a vigil for one of our former PhD students and sessional lecturer, Razgar Rahimi. Dr. Rahimi was killed along with his wife and child when Flight 752 went down. At the vigil, there was deep sadness and a sense of bewilderment over this avoidable tragedy. The vigil was one of many held at institutions across the country. Universities were disproportionately affected by this tragedy because a significant number of Canadian university faculty and students have ties to Iran.

In Canada, approximately 12 percent of our postsecondary student population is made up of international students. In addition to this, children of immigrants are much more likely to seek postsecondary education than those of Canadian families who have been in Canada for several generations.

Why is this significant? In the wake of tragedy, we are driven to try to make sense of the senseless. We are driven to seek meaning and comfort. I believe that those in the university sector should derive both solace and a sense of renewed purpose from the fact that universities are much-needed instruments of cultural, academic and social connection.

Although Canada broke diplomatic relations with Iran in September 2012, Canada and the country’s universities have continued to welcome faculty and students from Iran and around the world. Universities Canada reports that 40 percent of faculty are internationally trained in at least one of their degrees. Collaboration, consultation and connection are key pillars of university culture and as universities renew their commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, they renew their commitment to creating knowledge and solutions that advance us all.

Universities are central to helping our societies develop technology for good and to manage the development, implementation and use of technology in ways that benefit and do not harm. Let us, as a sector, honour those who died on Flight 752 by recommitting to our role as forces of connection and integration. Let us continue to welcome faculty and students from around the world. Let us continue to promote the responsible use of technology as a tool of connection. It is more important now than ever.

Cheryl Foy is university secretary and general counsel, office of the university secretariat and general counsel, at Ontario Tech University. She is also writes the Legally Speaking column for University Affairs.

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