The following is a statement that President and Vice-Chancellor Jacques Frémont delivered at the University of Ottawa’s Senate meeting on Monday, November 23, 2020.
Today, I would like to take the opportunity to come back to a recent incident that has generated a great deal of attention not only on our campus but externally as well. My main objective is to set the record straight, provide additional comments and share some thoughts on how we move forward.
At our October 19 meeting, I informed you about an incident at the Faculty of Arts. I subsequently issued a statement to the community the following Wednesday and provided an update to the Board of Governors on October 26 during its regular meeting. In the meantime, the media and social media have jumped on this issue and it has consequently received considerable attention, unfortunately with an abundance of inaccurate information that has further fueled divisiveness within and among our community.
Correcting the record
I want to reassure Senate members that the decisions made by the University on this matter are not arbitrary and were made while respecting the applicable collective agreement. Let me summarize what happened. Please note that these facts have been validated by several sources:
- On September 23, part-time Professor Lieutenant-Duval used the n-word in full in her class during a discussion of the reappropriation of offensive words by groups such as people of colour and LGBTQ communities.
- Following the class, a student, who is a person of colour, emailed her to state that many students were deeply hurt and ask that the word not to be used again in class.
- The professor apologized to the student and offered this student an opportunity to lead an in-class discussion about the use of the n-word. This generated tension within the group, with students complaining that the request was inappropriate. They believed the professor had put the onus on the students to educate the others and argue for their right to dignity and respect.
- The class discussion became very difficult with a number of students objecting to statements the professor made during the discussion including one that was perceived to be threatening by some participants.
- Tensions were such that both students and the professor reached out to the Dean for support to address the situation.
- The Dean took these steps:
- He informed the professor that she would be removed from her teaching duties pending an investigation. The professor was never suspended as a disciplinary measure. This was an administrative suspension with pay, that lasted one business day.
- He organized a meeting between University officials and the professor who was accompanied by her union representatives and lawyer, as per the APTPUO Collective Agreement.
- He put in place remedies to mediate a constructive return to class for the professor. This included training in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) for the professor; a class discussion with students led by EDI experts; and he created a separate section of the course for students who did not wish to continue with this professor.
- The professor resumed her teaching duties and taught her next class on October 16.
Our Community and Faculty-student relationships
I want to shift now to speak about how these dynamics have affected life here on campus.
I have been saddened and disturbed over the past weeks at how quickly members of our community have reached conclusions without a full understanding of what happened. I am discouraged by the divisive comments that have been unleashed in the name of upholding principles whose foundations are based on respecting dignity, civility and freedom within the academic environment.
Although this does not involve the large majority of people, it has created deep internal divisions that have strained relationships and, in some cases, friendships, not only among faculty but also among our support staff. This cannot be ignored, and we must take steps to heal our community.
I have appealed to individuals and small groups to work to restore civility in their dealings with each other. This is why I am calling on you, the Senate, as the body charged with sound management of academic issues on campus.
We need to understand and root out systemic racism within our confines and in broader society. We absolutely condemn racism, harassment, racial slurs, and discrimination. I am fully aware of the centrality of academic freedom and freedom of expression to the debate that has been happening on and off the campus, but we must understand the need for academic freedom, freedom of expression, and anti-racism to co-exist in an atmosphere of respect and dignity.
Furthermore, as a university, we must be careful not to view these principles solely or even primarily through the perspective of faculty members. We cannot ignore the power imbalance implicit in the student-teacher relationship that often conditions the way students perceive what their professors say and do. It also increases their vulnerability to harm.
That is an obvious proposition, and students are fully entitled to express themselves and debate freely as they develop their critical thinking. They can and must be able to debate what’s going on in class. However, in some cases, students may lose sight of their obligation to civil discourse within the context of their academic exchanges. Sometimes they use their social media platforms to amplify their voices.
The imbalance in power relationships dictates that faculty members and administrators have a duty to listen to student views, hear their grievances, and treat their lived experiences seriously, especially for those in BIPOC communities.
In the vast majority of the close to 4,000 courses we offer, students at the University of Ottawa are provided a highly respectful environment that aims to stimulate intellectual and critical thinking.
But as the incident at the Faculty of Arts, and some others, demonstrate, it is possible, on rare occasions, that some disruption in a classroom may jeopardize the ability to learn and interact freely. In such cases, we have a duty to take appropriate measures to re-establish a more conducive atmosphere. And in doing so, we cannot put the onus on the students.
Our way forward: actions against racism
In this context, we must take immediate actions to fight racism in all forms on our campus, moving quickly to improve our processes and approach.
Since June 2019, the University has taken a number of steps to combat racism. We need to do more. We heard from student representatives on the Board of Governors, among others, that the President’s Advisory Committee on Anti-Racism and Inclusion needs to shift to a committee of action.
Today, I announce the dissolution of that committee and the launch of a new, more action-oriented committee with a renewed mandate and membership.
The new Action Committee on Anti-Racism and Inclusion will bring together members of our community, who will be mandated to:
- review and assess University resources, programs, policies, processes, and practices to understand how they contribute to systemic racism
- provide recommendations that will further the inclusion of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) members at the University
- eliminate barriers to the University’s diversity and inclusion efforts
The new Action Committee will create and oversee recommended targets and outcomes. The Committee will also be tasked with oversight of the recommendations and provide regular progress reports to the University’s Administrative Committee and Board of Governors. Implementation and coordination of actions will be supported by a Special Advisor, who will be named shortly.
The Action Committee’s work is critically important and will require collaboration and consultation across the University of Ottawa community.
The Committee will be composed of representatives of BIPOC/equity-seeking and diversity students, faculty and staff. Two members will be appointed from the Board of Governors.
A call for nominations will be issued shortly and we encourage our students, faculty, and staff to nominate those who are best suited to move our community forward.
I trust the Action Plan produced by this Committee, paired with other initiatives already taken or underway, will set us on a path forward to advance the University’s commitment to address racism, and particularly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, on our campus.
As we make progress in the months ahead, we will now turn our focus to healing as a community and I am confident we will emerge stronger.