Queen’s professors slam university for ‘callous’ treatment of history lecturer

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Queen's University isn't backing away from its decision to force a professor into retirement even after he appears to have been cleared of making racist and sexist remarks in his history class and colleagues have rallied to support him.

Michael Mason, a sessional lecturer whose career spanned 50 years, was suspended after some students complained he'd used terms such as "rag head," "towel head" and "Japs" during a lecture.

Mason insisted he only used the terms in a teaching context, reading from historical documents, to show prevailing attitudes towards minorities during the Second World War. He was also accused of referring to his female students as "mistresses" but said that, too, was taken out of context.

Mason was reprimanded and suspended pending further investigation but the 74-year-old professor opted to retire instead.

After Queen's dropped its review, the Canadian Association of University Teachers investigated and filed its own report, accusing the Kingston, Ont., school of acting "callously and irresponsibly" towards Mason, according to the Globe and Mail.

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Mason's colleagues at Queen's also took his side. Prof. Mark Jones asked the university's senate why administrators had not responded to allegations they'd railroaded Mason and whether they should apologize, the Globe said.

"I wanted to pressure the university to respond," Jones said. "The report is out there in the public sphere. I think it's doing damage to our reputation."

But Queen's provost Alan Harrison told the Globe it was willing to look at the allegations internally and take the issue to arbitration if necessary. But he called the teachers association report's conclusions "incorrect."

"We would never seek to censor an individual using material, appropriately contextualized," he said. "As far as we're concerned it has been laid to rest."

But not as far as Mason's fellow academics are concerned. They recently sent an open letter to him apologizing for the way the university handled his case, the National Post reported.

"In these actions, Queen's Administration exposes the University and the Department of History to public and professional censure," says the letter, which had 155 signatories Monday evening, according to the Post.

"It also clearly demonstrates that it cannot and does not represent Queen's."

The letter also criticizes Queen's for refusing to respond publicly to the association's report.

Harrison told the Post the association had no jurisdiction to investigate the Mason case and Queen's own faculty association strongly discouraged the university from running its own investigation.

Mason said he was surprised to hear about the letter.

"I don't want to over-dramatize it but it's been a hard year for me," he told the Post. "This sort of brightens my day."

While Mason claims he was misunderstood, other professors have found themselves in hot water for their views.

A teacher at an Atlanta consortium of black religious seminaries, Rev. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, says he was fired for his conservative views, including on homosexuality.

The Religion News Service reported Hopkins filed a complaint last summer with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the Interdenominational Theological Center of harassment and of "disagreeing with my conservative religious ideals, intimidating me, slandering my character, giving me poor evaluations, and changing student grades from failing to passing with no merit."

Hopkins said the problems began after attendees at an informal lecture he organized were offered a book declaring homosexuality a sin.

And the American Center for Law and Justice has gone to bat for a University of California, Los Angeles, researcher who claims he was fired for blowing the whistle on junk environmental science and scientific misconduct at the university.

The center has filed suit on behalf of James E. Enstrom, a professor at UCLA's Department of Environmental Health Sciences, who it says published peer-reviewed research showing that tough state regulations against diesel particulates are unnecessary because particulates don't kill Californians.

Here in Canada, a history professor at the University of Prince Edward Island was fired in 2006 for offering students a 70 per cent grade if they didn't show up for his class.

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David Weale told CBC News at the time his offer was an attempt to deal with chronic classroom overcrowding by encouraging those who weren't really interested in the course to stay away, as long as they paid their tuition fees.

"I believe as a result of what happened, there were a lot of people who were discussing the university and the role of the university, and I think that was a healthy and positive thing," he said.