A Profound Call to Conscience: Dr. Gem Newman’s Valedictory Speech and Its Aftermath

In a stirring and historic moment, Dr. Gem Newman, the valedictorian of the University of Manitoba, used his platform to shed light on the ongoing crisis in Gaza. His impassioned call for an end to what the United Nations and other world leaders have described as genocide and destruction resonated far beyond the confines of his convocation ceremony, and forever added his voice to the broader global conversation about justice, humanity, and the responsibilities of institutions and individuals alike.

Dr. Newman’s valedictory address was a powerful denunciation of the violence and suffering inflicted upon the people of Gaza. His speech not only highlighted the immediate humanitarian crisis but also touched upon broader issues of historical injustices, political responsibilities, and the ethical imperatives that compel action. By framing his arguments within the context of his medical training and the Hippocratic Oath, Dr. Newman underscored the duty of all professionals to advocate for the well-being of others.

His speech struck a chord worldwide and has garnered some unfavourable reactions, but overwhelming support and climbing video views have silenced his critics. Just days after his speech, the world has seen countries like Norway, Spain, and Ireland move to recognize Palestine as a state, signalling a shift in diplomatic stances. Additionally, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for key figures on both sides of the conflict: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant, and three top Hamas officials. The action by the ICC highlights the global community’s increasing impatience with the status quo and the urgent need for accountability and a return to humanity.

The University of Manitoba’s response to Dr. Newman’s speech was a delicate balancing act of trying to remain neutral, respect its students’ right to free speech, and not alienate donors. However many have said the institution shifted its stance of neutrality after receiving a letter from Ernest Rady of the Rady Foundation and decided to remove the video of the speech from its YouTube channel. Ernest Rady, whose foundation had donated $30 million to the university in honour of his father, one of Manitoba’s first Jewish doctors, expressed that the speech dishonoured his father’s memory and disrespected the Jewish community.

This decision has sparked a heated debate about balancing free speech and financial dependence. Critics argue that by pulling the video, the university has shown that monetary contributions can outweigh the collective opinions and voices of its students. Supporters of the decision claim it was necessary to maintain harmony and respect within the diverse university community.

The core of this controversy lies in the moral questions it raises. What happens when financial contributions seemingly dictate the actions of educational institutions? Does this undermine the values these institutions purport to uphold? In Dr. Newman’s case, his speech was a call for ethical consistency and human compassion, principles that should be central to any academic institution.

Educational institutions like the University of Manitoba have a duty to foster free thought and speech, especially when these are used to advocate for justice and humanitarianism. By retracting Dr. Newman’s speech, the university risks sending a message that financial interests take precedence over moral and ethical considerations.

The University of Manitoba’s actions are not isolated. Similar situations have occurred in other major universities, including Harvard, where President Claudine Gay was forced to resign following donor pressures related to student activism. These incidents reveal a troubling trend where financial contributions can influence institutional decisions, potentially stifling important dialogues and dissent.

In academia, where the pursuit of truth and the encouragement of critical thinking are paramount, the influence of money poses a significant threat. If universities prioritize donour satisfaction over the intellectual and ethical development of their students, they compromise their integrity and mission.

Dr. Newman’s use of his medical background to frame his argument brings another layer of complexity to the discussion. The Hippocratic Oath emphasizes the responsibility of doctors to advocate for the well-being of all people. This extends beyond individual patient care to broader societal issues that affect public health and welfare.

When doctors, trained and nurtured by these very institutions, speak out against injustices, they are fulfilling their professional and ethical duties. Silencing them not only undermines their professional integrity but also deprives society of important voices advocating for health and human rights.

The question of what the University of Manitoba, and institutions like it, should do in such situations is critical. They must navigate the fine line between respecting donor contributions and upholding their commitment to free speech and ethical advocacy. Transparency and open dialogue are essential in addressing these challenges.

Institutions should:

Establish Clear Policies: Universities need clear policies on how to handle controversial speeches and donor pressures. These policies should prioritize academic freedom and ethical advocacy.

Promote Open Dialogue: Encouraging open, honest conversations about contentious issues helps create an informed and engaged community. This includes giving a platform to diverse perspectives, even those that might be uncomfortable or controversial.

Balance Financial and Ethical Considerations: While financial contributions are crucial for the functioning of educational institutions, they should not come at the expense of their core values. Finding a balance that respects both is essential.

Support Ethical Advocacy: Institutions should support and protect those who use their platforms to advocate for ethical and humanitarian issues, recognizing the broader societal impact of such advocacy.

Dr. Gem Newman’s valedictory speech was more than a call to action; it was a profound reminder of the responsibilities we all share in confronting injustice. The University of Manitoba’s reaction to his speech highlights a critical debate about the influence of money on free speech and ethical advocacy within educational institutions.

As we reflect on this profound moment of truth, it is clear that institutions must prioritize their foundational values over financial pressures. They must support voices like Dr. Newman’s that call for justice and humanity, ensuring that education remains the guiding light of truth and ethical guidance in society. Only by doing so can they truly honour their mission and the trust placed in them by their students and the broader community.