Mount A suspends professor after investigation into student complaints about blog

·6 min read
Prof. Rima Azar plans to mount a legal defence after Mount Allison announced plans to suspend her for the fall term. (Brian Chisholm/CBC News file photo - image credit)
Prof. Rima Azar plans to mount a legal defence after Mount Allison announced plans to suspend her for the fall term. (Brian Chisholm/CBC News file photo - image credit)

A Mount Allison University professor will not be teaching at the university for the fall term following an investigation into complaints that some posts on her personal blog were racist and discriminatory.

In a memo sent to faculty, staff and students on Tuesday, Mount Allison's communications director said that Rima Azar, an associate professor of health psychology, will also be asked to take equity, diversity and inclusion training, at the university's expense.

"Over the past two months, an independent investigator has reviewed complaints from students alleging discriminatory conduct, stemming from blog posts and student interactions," Robert Hiscock said in the memo.

"The university has reviewed the report in which the investigator has made significant findings requiring action."

Hiscock declined Thursday to provide examples of those findings, citing confidentiality.

"The report is confidential and, as per university policy as well as the collective agreement with the Mount Allison Faculty Association, will not be released," he said in an email to CBC News.

Mount Allison launched an independent internal review of complaints about Rima Azar's personal blog in February.
Mount Allison launched an independent internal review of complaints about Rima Azar's personal blog in February.(Submitted by Mount Allison )

Review launched in February after complaints

The internal review was launched in February, after several students complained to the university's student union.

Jonathan Ferguson, who was president of Mount Allison Students' Union at that time, said the union received multiple complaints about Azar's blog.

The complaints were not about any one post specifically, he said, but rather about "what this professor was saying throughout her blog … denying systemic racism in New Brunswick or in Canada, talking about BIPOC students in unkind ways, labelling Black Lives Matter a radical group."

During the controversy in February, Husoni Raymond, a St. Thomas University graduate who was mentioned in Azar's blog, tweeted: "Disappointing to see a professor who's still ignorant to what racism is and will be using her power within the institution to uphold racists ideologies. Racism IS in Canada. Racism IS in NB."

Raymond was responding to a post by Azar in which she said, in part:

"NB is NOT racist. Canada is NOT racist. We do not have 'systemic' racism or 'systemic' discrimination. We just have systemic naivety because we are a young country and because we want to save the world.

"Oh, one quick question to Mr. Husoni Raymond: Upon your graduation from St. Thomas University, you have been named the 2020 recipient of the Tom McCann Memorial Trophy for your 'strong leadership and character' … If NB is as racist as you are claiming, would one of its prestigious universities be honouring you like that?"

Prof launches GoFundMe campaign to cover legal fees

Azar did not immediately respond to a CBC News request for comment on the investigation's findings and recommendations on Thursday.

But in a post on a GoFundMe campaign page she launched on Wednesday, Azar said the allegations against her are false and that she plans to mount a legal defence.

"I have been the target of cancel culture since February 22, 2021 simply because I love to write on my Bambi's Afkar blog," Azar wrote.

"I now have been suspended from my job without pay, based on false allegations. We are in a pandemic and times are tough on all. This is why your support means the world to me. ... However, the reputational damage already done (defamation, attack to my character) has implications beyond my employer and workplace."

Charlie Burke, president of the Mount Allison Student Union, said the union is pleased that students' concerns were taken seriously.
Charlie Burke, president of the Mount Allison Student Union, said the union is pleased that students' concerns were taken seriously.(Tori Weldon/CBC)

Academic freedom advocate calls suspension 'outrageous'

Mount Allison Student Union's new president said the union is satisfied with the investigation's outcome.

"We are very pleased that the university took the students' concerns seriously," Charlie Burke said in an interview Thursday.

Burke said blog posts that condemned the Black Lives Matter group were among those concerns, as were incidents of "students who were taught by this professor being called out by name" in her blog.

Several of Azar's posts quote from Black Lives Matter's Facebook page, in one instance questioning its push to be included in New Brunswick school curriculum and in another instance referring to its rating of political parties on their stand on Black Lives Matter issues as "ill-disguised communist propaganda."

"At the end of the day, it is unprofessional to comment on students' beliefs," Burke said.

"We believe that students have a right to a safe learning environment and should feel safe" bringing up certain subjects in the classroom.

Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, says Mount Allison University should have used the controversy around the complaints as a teachable moment about the academic values of free speech and discussion.
Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, says Mount Allison University should have used the controversy around the complaints as a teachable moment about the academic values of free speech and discussion.(Submitted by Mark Mercer)

But for Mark Mercer, head of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, the university's decision is a blow to academic freedom and to the vital tenet of free speech on campus.

The society, which rallied to Azar's defence in February and urged Mount Allison to rethink its decision to call a review, said the university should have handled the situation differently.

"They should have explained to the students that these are ideas and opinions that the professor is expressing, and if they wish to rebut them they are free to do so — and leave it at that," Mercer said in an interview Thursday.

Instead, he said, "they launched an investigation, and now we discover that Dr. Azar is being suspended without pay … and that's outrageous. The most we would expect [as a] disciplinary procedure would be a letter of reprimand, and even that would be improper. Mercer said universities are "signalling" their commitment to the goals of social justice movements by vigorously prosecuting allegations.

A 'chill' on expression underway, critic says

But in so doing, he said, they will ultimately put a chill on the expression and discussion of ideas.

That has already happened, Mercer said.

"Many students and professors are now fearful not only of expressing the views they themselves hold, but even floating certain ideas to see what the criticisms are" because they're worried they'll be sanctioned, he said.

"I don't think universities have done very well at creating safe spaces for discussion."

In an email Thursday, the Mount Allison Faculty Association confirmed it has been working with Azar since the review process began and said it plans to ensure her union rights are protected.

"It is the role of the union to defend our collective agreements and to ensure that the rights of a member under the collective agreement are not being infringed, and MAFA will continue to work with this member," association president Erin Steuter said.

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