Committee backs right to freedom of expression after Ottawa prof uses N-word

·4 min read
University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont said while the report gives the institution a guide to 'do better,' protecting freedom of expression remains 'crucial to any university in Canada.' (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)
University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont said while the report gives the institution a guide to 'do better,' protecting freedom of expression remains 'crucial to any university in Canada.' (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)

A committee formed after a University of Ottawa professor's controversial use of the N-word during class recommends the school "affirm the need to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression."

The committee, led by former judge Michel Bastarache, issued its report Thursday and stated its members are "against the exclusion of words, works or ideas in the context of respectful academic presentations and discussions."

They also said doing so can "compromise the dissemination of knowledge."

Last fall, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, a part-time professor at the university, was suspended after a student complained she had used the N-word during an art and gender class.

Lieutenant-Duval later said she used the word as an example of a word a community has reclaimed, and did not intend to hurt people or provoke controversy. She taught again last spring, but did not return this fall.

Following the incident, many students called on the school to develop a zero-tolerance policy on the use of the N-word, while a group of 34 professors across various departments signed a letter of support for their colleague.

The university then created the committee, led by Bastarache, to look at what could be learned from the incident.

Ultimately, the committee concluded the U of O should "unequivocally reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression." It said members of the community need to be assured of the university's support when "their right to free expression is at stake."

The committee consulted faculty, staff and students for its report. During the consultation, several professors reported being the subject of "outrageous attacks by students simply for having expressed their opinion."

Current complaint system 'poorly known and ill suited'

The report includes several other recommendations including the establishment of a standing committee to review and implement policies on the matter.

That committee would have the authority to receive complaints from faculty members and any member of the university, conduct "in-depth reviews of the situation at the university," and write an annual report on "complaints received and processed."

The report labelled the university's current complaint system as "poorly known and ill suited to dealing with situations involving academic freedom and freedom of expression."

It also recommended the university create a plan to "fight racism and discrimination" and establish a diversity and inclusion training program.

The report did say there is no consensus at the university, or at universities across Canada, when it comes to defining academic freedom and freedom of expression.

However, it said the university needs to define the concept and professors should receive training as a "preventative approach."

Freedom of expression 'crucial' says president

University president Jacques Frémont responded to the report, saying it gives the institution a guide to deal with these situations moving forward and "to do better."

"Academic freedom and freedom of expression are crucial to any university in Canada, including the University of Ottawa," he told CBC.

Frémont said that freedom will coincide with the "decolonization, anti-racism, equality, diversity and inclusion" work on campus.

"I think the best we can do is aim at the change of culture so that students and their professors have respectful exchanges from both directions," he said.

When it comes to implementing the committee's recommendations, Frémont said his staff are discussing the report, but some of the proposals "are already in the making."

The committee only serves an advisory role, and Frémont would not commit to banning the use of the N-word in school.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Classroom feels unsafe, says student

Josiane N'tchoreret-Mbiamany, a member of the Black Student Leaders Association at the University of Ottawa said the report left her in "utter and complete shock."

"The academic freedom argument that they're using just feels like an excuse [that masks] the real problem, which is systematic racism," said N'tchoreret-Mbiamany.

N'tchoreret-Mbiamany said that for her and many other students, there is no context or instance in which the N-word should be said.

"It's literally Black trauma being on display," she said.

What the university also fails to understand, N'tchoreret-Mbiamany added, are the power dynamics in a class setting between student and professor.

"I've actually had to remove myself from a class because one of my professors signed the letter in which they believe that they should [be able to] use the N-word," she said. "I didn't feel safe."

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the university's student union executive committee said many of the report's recommendations "fall grossly short of our expectations."

"At a first glance, the UOSU Executive Committee are disappointed with what we have seen so far," it said. "Of all parties to this report, academics should be fully aware of the fact that words matter."

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