An appeal for calm and reflection from President Jacques Frémont

Posted on Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dear students, professors and staff,

Many things have been written and said over the past few days concerning the use of the n-word by one of our professors in the Faculty of Arts. I made a public statement to emphasize that academic freedom is not incompatible with the right to be treated with dignity. In doing so, 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 today.

Simply put, the University of Ottawa condemns racism in all its forms, full stop.

For reasons of confidentiality, I am not at liberty to discuss the details of the incident that led to the University’s intervention in relation to the professor whose actions lie at the heart of the recent controversy. However, I can stipulate that the Dean of Arts intervened at the request of the professor and of students to attempt to resolve tensions that were undermining the teaching and learning environment. Let me reassure you that the decision to withdraw her temporarily from the classroom long enough to look into the situation was not taken arbitrarily, and that her academic freedom was at no point threatened. This response was clearly in line with the collective bargaining agreement that governs the working conditions of part-time faculty members at uOttawa. Both the professor and her union took part in the process that led to her returning to her duties; she remained an employee of uOttawa throughout this process.

We are currently witnessing a disagreement between two diametrically opposed camps attacking each other through various media channels. In such a hostile and disrespectful 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, and I am pleased to note that its members have in recent days and despite divergent positions, nevertheless converged on the essential: an open university where the fundamental missions are articulated in full respect for the academic freedom and dignity of each of its members and where all deserve to be treated with dignity and not to be marginalized. There is a consensus on this, and it is to be welcomed.

Reflection and calm are required now. I encourage all those who wish to be heard to speak respectfully so as not to further enflame tensions. We all agree that contempt, defamation and disrespectful language are not appropriate and do not enrich the debate. Words like these do not lead to the productive discussions that we hope to have in the future. Make no mistake, my wish is that this debate can take place.

Questions pertaining to academic freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental. Equally profound are questions concerning the right to be treated with dignity. Such principles must be treated with care, even in an academic milieu. Every professor has a duty to establish a healthy and respectful learning environment. Every professor must also moderate discussion that may at times be difficult in such a way as to ensure that the rights of students are never infringed upon. I know that this is a concern for every one of our professors.

In conclusion, please let me reiterate my profound commitment – and that of the University of Ottawa – to the promotion of critical discourse on campus. While the conversations are often arduous, they are necessary. And we have an obligation to ensure that our dialogue remains respectful and productive. We owe it to our students; we owe it to ourselves as a community and we owe it to society. We can and must do better.

Jacques Frémont
President and Vice-Chancellor

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