This statement was delivered by the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ottawa at the meeting of the Board of Governors today:
Members of the Board, I want to speak today about a recent incident that occurred at the University and about which you have surely read this past week. It is an incident that has raised debate both on our campus and beyond about two principles that we hold dear at the University of Ottawa.
The first is dignity and respect. Let me say right away that there is no place for racism at the University of Ottawa. We may be 50,000 people, but we are one community. We are also a welcoming community that absolutely opposes and denounces racism, harassment, racial slurs and discrimination of any kind. It is critical that everyone on our campus feels safe and treats each other with respect.
Our campus is a microcosm of society. That’s why this event has resonated so widely and so personally. Words matter. The word at the centre of this debate is one whose semantic, historical and connotative burden is so overwhelming as to make it one of the most offensive and least acceptable words in both the English and French languages.
Addressing racism is and will remain an absolute priority for the University. We have been working on the anti-racism agenda for more than a year now and some progress has been made. However, it is far from enough and I completely agree with Board members Saada Hussen and Jamie Ghossein in their statement that the current advisory committee’s work has not been satisfactory. Together, we can change this. I am committed to this change and to transform it into a committee of action.
The second principle is academic freedom. It is the most fundamental value of any university. Academic freedom is the absolute and necessary core value that binds us all and allows for the accomplishment of our core mission, that of educating and researching. It must be protected and continually enhanced.
There is a broad consensus among our community members -- and it is true for all Canadian universities -- that the teaching and learning environment must be fully conducive to safety, respect, intellectual freedom, freedom of inquiry and critical thinking. These values are at the heart of the University’s mission and are ones that we must always fight for.
Academic freedom is entirely compatible with the notion that all individuals have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. These two principles should not be in opposition to each other.
While the University recognizes the right and indeed the duty of academics to discuss and explore sensitive issues, there is a clear responsibility to do so in a way that causes no harm. That did not happen in this case. The university had a parallel duty to provide students with a way to proceed without feeling unsafe and so they were given the right to transfer to a parallel class -- a result that is perhaps imperfect, but pragmatic.
The discussions over this past week are challenging. Emotions have run high. I am acutely aware that things have been said that have been hurtful to many of our community members.
I should note we have learned about another unacceptable incident regarding the use of the n-word with students. Students have had obvious discomfort and were deeply affected. This will not be tolerated at the University of Ottawa and I can assure you that we will take every step needed to deal with such situations and continue to offer a safe and respectful teaching and learning environment.
I am concerned that some may have lost sight of the primary and overwhelming need of everyone in our community to feel safe and secure in the learning environment. It is our societal obligation to ensure that everyone feels safe, even though we may disagree. The sense of anger and grievance being expressed by a variety of people and groups is genuinely and deeply felt. Those feelings must be understood and respected.
I personally abhor the insults and contemptuous tone used by some to express themselves. However, it is certainly not appropriate for the University to try to shape how people feel or to insist on moderating the tone of their expression. But it is appropriate for us to say that as members of a large and diverse community, we have an obligation to each other to provide a common sense of safety and security, even on difficult and emotionally taxing issues.
We must work together, and we have to be conscious of the words we use and the impact they may have on each other, regardless our values, beliefs and moral principles.
I am confident that in the days and weeks to come we will agree on the way forward to make sure that, as a community, we emerge stronger from this crisis and that the values of individual dignity and of academic freedom remain at our core.
President and Vice-Chancellor