The following is a statement that President and Vice-Chancellor Jacques Frémont delivered at the University of Ottawa’s Senate meeting on Monday, October 19.
Dear members of the uOttawa community,
You have perhaps heard about a recent incident at the Faculty of Arts wherein a part-time professor used the “n-word” during a class. A student reacted after class in an email to the professor. The latter subsequently apologized, stating that she was unaware that her use of the n-word was unacceptable, and invited her students to discuss the issue in their next class together.
For at least a year and a half now, uOttawa has experienced racist and racially motivated incidents. We have held many Town Halls at which difficult conversations have been had about the various ways racism is expressed on our campus. We are, like many other universities, taking stock of the systemic dimensions of racism and we have committed to making meaningful changes to address these issues. One dynamic raised regularly in our conversations has been that of the aggressions and micro-aggressions to which members of uOttawa’s Black and racialized communities are subjected. What might appear trivial to a member of the majority may be perceived as profoundly offensive to members of minority communities. Members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a micro-aggression.
It is in this context that the recent incident at the Faculty of Arts occurred, an incident that many have attempted to characterize as a simple issue of academic freedom or of freedom of expression. It is, however, more complicated than that since many members of our community judge that their right to dignity has been affected. Thus, two principles appear to be in conflict and to require reconciliation. It was in pursuit of just such a resolution that the leadership of the Faculty of Arts proactively met with students and established a new section of the course in question to serve students who did not wish to continue their classes with their original professor. This was a necessary step to accommodate and respect the rights of all.
Some have pointed out that the professor in question wished to discuss her use of the n-word in a subsequent class. This is an expression of her academic freedom and she surely has the right do so. However, it should come as no surprise if many Black and racialized students are unwilling to join her in this discussion, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, many will not want to have to argue yet again that their right to dignity should be respected. When this incident occurred, the professor could have chosen not to use the full n-word. Yet she did and is now facing the consequences.
Freedom of expression and academic freedom are essential to the functioning of any university. We must fight to ensure that that these freedoms remain ubiquitous in our daily lives. Personally, I can assure you that I regularly fight to protect the freedom of expression of my colleagues in response to the steady stream of people writing to my office concerning things that have been written or said and demanding that their author be sanctioned. Every day difficult conversations are held on our campus and in our classes, on all sort of issues. Critical thinking depends on academic freedom.
And yet, contrary to so much of what has been written in recent days, the right to freedom of expression and the right to dignity are not contradictory principles, but complementary. They must co-exist with one another other. This is the task we have been given. Throughout these recent days the professor in question has remained an employee of uOttawa. During the several days during which she did not teach the university organized a coordinated return for her class with her cooperation. She is free to continue her teaching (which she returned to last Friday) while enjoying her full academic freedom.
President and Vice-Chancellor