James Turk, the director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, said he was “appalled” after hearing a recording of a meeting between the TA and school officials, in which she was reprimanded for playing a video showing a debate over gender pronouns.
“I’ve been following this story closely, and quite frankly I’m appalled at how Lindsay Shepherd has been treated at Laurier,” he told Global News.
Shepherd, who spoke with Global News Monday, said she has gotten hundreds of messages of support but has yet to hear back from the university.
The TA was reprimanded by the school earlier this month, for showing a YouTube video of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who infamously refused to use gender pronouns other than “he” or “she.”
Faculty and administration at the university, in recordings provided to Global News by Shepherd, accused the TA of showing hate-filled content to students. They said Shepherd should have — at the very least — denounced the video before playing it.
LISTEN: Excerpts from secretly recorded meeting between Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and faculty
The meeting, which Shepherd secretly recorded, left her in tears after staff said playing the clip created a toxic environment for transgender students and called her transphobic.
Shepherd said the clip of Peterson debating another U of T professor, Nicholas Matte, was meant to demonstrate ways in which the existence of gender-specific pronouns has caused controversy. She added the clip was presented neutrally and without bias.
Turk explained that encouraging discussion and debate is essential to a university education.
WATCH: Critical thinking controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University
“She was doing, as she said in that interview, exactly what a faculty member or TA should be doing. She was raising a controversial issue related to the subject matter of the course, and she was presenting different perspectives on that issue. That’s what university education is about.”
A teacher’s responsibility
Turk explained that teachers can be expected to denounce things that are factually incorrect: “If someone said the moon was made of green cheese, you’d say there’s no foundation for that claim. So we don’t teach that. You can say there are certain things that have no basis.”
But the professor added that denouncing someone’s ideological position isn’t part of a teacher’s job.
“The job of the teacher in this case is to help students be aware of that, and to facilitate a discussion of it in the class, which she did.”
“The university should issue a public apology to Lindsay Shepherd, saying that what she was doing is entirely appropriate, in the sense that it was consistent with the subject matter of the course. And she was facilitating an informed discussion for her students by allowing them to hear different perspectives of a controversial issue,” Turk said.
The university has been fairly mum on the issue, even as it gains some international attention. It issued a statement on Nov. 16, which it emailed once again to Global News on Monday.
The president and vice-chancellor, Deborah MacLatchy, said that the university champions “the civil debate of competing ideas, free speech, and freedom of expression.”
WATCH: Toronto professor refuses to use genderless pronouns
“The real question, however, is how do we encourage and implement these fundamental ideals in a world that’s more aware of the importance of inclusivity and yet, at the same time, is growing more polarized?” she wrote in the statement.
Reaction to Shepherd’s story
Shepherd says she has received support from across North America, and even from around the world. She’s heard from about 10 Wilfrid Laurier professors.
“Out of the hundreds of messages I’ve gotten, there’s not been one single message that says they disagree with what I do,” Shepherd said. “Because I never endorsed any kind of position, all I’m advocating for is we need to be able to talk intellectually about things that are happening in the world, we can’t pretend that they’re not happening.”
While she hoped for Wilfrid Laurier to react differently, some professors from the school have come to her defence.
Sociology professor David Haskell explained he took particular offence to the meeting, during which one university staff member likened the situation to supporting Hitler.
“I see increasingly many of my colleagues using those kind of dramatic comparisons to Hitler, to other totalitarian regimes, but they do it in order to silence others,” he said.
“If we as a university really believed in free speech, and if we’d been underlining that all the way along, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but increasingly here at Laurier and at other universities, we are censoring students,” Haskell said.
WATCH: Wilfrid Laurier Professor comes to defence of censored TA Lindsay Shepherd
Shepherd says releasing a tape of the meeting made her feel vulnerable, but it was the right decision — especially if it helps universities reflect on the issue.
“I think this story has shown that people still feel really strongly about freedom of speech, and freedom to think for themselves, and freedom of debate and discussion and critical thinking,” she explained.
“This shows that we really need to get back to thinking about what the role of the university is in society.”