U of O president calls for 'calm and reflection' in wake of N-word firestorm

·2 min read

As the firestorm over a professor's use of the N-word in class continues to envelope the academic community and beyond, University of Ottawa president and vice-chancellor Jacques Frémont called for calm Thursday.

"I may not have sufficiently underscored the impact on our students of a word whose semantic, historical and connotative burden is so overwhelming as to make it one of the most offensive and least acceptable words in the English language," wrote Frémont in an open letter to the school community.

The university suspended part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval on Sept. 23 after a student complained she had used the N-word during an art and gender class.

Lieutenant-Duval has been reinstated, and has since apologized for using the word, but her suspension has caused a deep rift on campus.

Last week, a group of 34 francophone professors from several departments signed an open letter defending Lieutenant-Duval. They claimed her academic freedom had been infringed upon, and suggested the term can be used in certain contexts if there is educational value.

Tension, radicalization

The U of O's student union and a growing number of other faculty members expressed outrage that the professors had defended the use of the word.

"We are currently witnessing a disagreement between two diametrically opposed camps attacking each other through various media channels," wrote Frémont. "In such a hostile environment little progress can be made."

"The more tension we have around these social issues, the more radicalized and polarized the discourse becomes, and the more difficult it is to find a viable way forward. Our community deserves better."

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

"Every professor has a duty to establish a healthy and respectful learning environment. Every professor must also moderate discussion that may be at times be difficult in such a way as to ensure the rights of students are never infringed upon," Frémont wrote, calling for "calm and reflection" from everyone involved.

"I encourage those who wish to be heard to speak respectfully as to not further enflame tensions," he wrote, adding: "Make no mistake, my wish is that this debate can take place."

Frémont turned down an interview request from CBC.

Student union reacts

On social media, Babacar Faye, president of the University of Ottawa Students' Union, wrote that the signal to Black students on campus is that they should quiet down.

"Often, racialized people are told to calm down in these situations. Their calls for racial equality are played off as irrational and infantile in consequence," he wrote.

"The university is missing their duty to protect their students here," Faye wrote. "It feels like we've been dragged by faculty into a national debate on the n word, simply because they were not comfortable in confronting their own privilege and abuse of it."