FULL TEXT: Apology from Wilfrid Laurier officials over handling of free speech controversy

Click to play video: 'Wilfrid Laurier graduate student happy university apologized but wanted more long-term change'
Wilfrid Laurier graduate student happy university apologized but wanted more long-term change
Wilfrid Laurier graduate student and teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd is happy with the apology from the university but feels the administration could have done more to change policy – Nov 21, 2017

On Nov. 21, the president and vice chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, Deborah MacLatchy, and Laurier professor Nathan Rambukkana issued separate apologies for the way the university handled a complaint about a T.A.’s choice of class material.

LISTEN: Extended excerpts from secretly recorded meeting between Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and faculty
Click to play video: 'Extended: Excerpts from secretly recorded meeting between Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and faculty'
Extended: Excerpts from secretly recorded meeting between Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and faculty

Lindsay Shepherd was accused of being transphobic after playing a clip of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson debating his stance on refusing to use any personal pronouns other than “he” or “she” for students in a communications class. She recorded the meeting, which took place on Nov. 8, with the professor and other officials, where Rambukkana said her approach of showing the controversial video without context was tantamount to showing a video of Hitler without context.

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Both MacLatchy and Rambukkan issued official apologies on Tuesday. Read the full text below.

Apology from Deborah MacLatchy, President and Vice Chancellor of the university

I’m writing to make an apology on behalf of the university.

Through the media, we have now had the opportunity to hear the full recording of the meeting that took place at Wilfrid Laurier University.

After listening to this recording, an apology is in order. The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires. I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd. I will convey my apology to her directly. Professor Rambukkana has also chosen to apologize to Lindsay Shepherd about the way the meeting was conducted.

I remain troubled by the way faculty, staff and students involved in this situation have been targeted with extreme vitriol. Supports are in place at the university to support them through this situation.

The university has engaged an independent party to assess the facts of the matter including a review of related processes going forward. The review is intended to support improvement in our processes. The university is committed to ensuring that the vitally important role of Teaching Assistant supports an enriched learning environment for all students.     

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Let me be clear by stating that Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Giving life to these principles while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion, is not a simple matter. The intense media interest points to a highly polarizing and very complicated set of issues that is affecting universities across the democratic world. The polarizing nature of the current debate does not do justice to the complexity of issues.

Laurier is prepared to engage with these important discussions in a thoughtful and determined way. I have announced a task force to delve into these issues. Further details will be announced in the days ahead. I look forward to the process and I am confident that the outcome will contribute to a better understating of these issues for Laurier and the broader community.

Apology letter from Nathan Rambukkana to Lindsay Shepherd

Dear Lindsay,

I wanted to write to apologize to you for how the meeting we had proceeded. While I was not able to do so earlier due to confidentiality concerns, including your privacy as a grad student, now that the audio of the meeting is public I can say more. While I still cannot discuss the student concerns raised about the tutorial, everything that has happened since the meeting has given me occasion to rethink not only my approach to discussing the concerns that day, but many of the things I said in our meeting as well.

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First, I wanted to say that when I was made aware of the concerns, I was told that the proper procedure would be to have an informal meeting to discuss it. In the process of arranging this, others indicated they should attend as well. This is one of the facets of working at a university, that meetings can often become de-facto committees due to relevant stakeholders being pulled in. My main concerns were finding out why a lesson on writing skills had become a political discussion, and making sure harm didn’t befall students. However, in not also prioritizing my mentorship role as the course director and your supervisor, I didn’t do enough to try to support you in this meeting, which I deeply regret. I should have seen how meeting with a panel of three people would be an intimidating situation and not invite a productive discussion. Had I tried harder to create a situation more conducive to talking these issues through, things might have gone very differently, but alas I did not.

Second, this entire occasion, and hearing from so many with passionate views on this issue from across the political spectrum, has made me seriously rethink some of the positions I took in the meeting. I made the argument that first-year students, not studying this topic specifically, might not have the tool kit to unpack or process a controversial view such as Dr. Peterson’s, saying that such material might be better reserved for upper-year or grad courses. While I still think that such material needs to be handled carefully, especially so as to not infringe on the rights of any of our students or make them feel unwelcome in the learning environment, I believe you are right that making a space for controversial or oppositional views is important, and even essential to a university. The trick is how to properly contextualize such material. One way might be through having readings, or a lecture on the subject before discussion, but you are correct that first-years should be eligible to engage with societal debates in this way. Perhaps instead of the route I took I should have added further discussion in lecture, or supplementary readings. But instead I tried to make a point about the need to contextualize difficult material, and drew on the example of playing a speech by Hitler to do it. This was, obviously, a poorly chosen example. I meant to use it to drive home a point about context by saying here was material that would definitely need to be contextualized rather than presented neutrally, and instead I implied that Dr. Peterson is like Hitler, which is untrue and was never my intention. While I disagree strongly with many of Dr. Peterson’s academic positions and actions, the tired analogy does him a disservice and was the opposite of useful in our discussion.

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Finally there is the question of teaching from a social justice perspective, which my course does attempt to do. I write elsewhere about reaching across the aisle to former alt-right figures as possible unexpected allies in the struggle to create a better more just society for all. But hearing all of the feedback from people and looking at the polarized response I am beginning to rethink so limited an approach. Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought. And maybe I have to get out of an “us versus them” habit of thought to do this myself, and to think of the goal as more than simply advancing social justice, but social betterment and progress as a whole. While I think that such a pedagogical approach must still work not to marginalize some students, I think the issues are too complex to leave as a binary with protection of students on one side and protection of speech on the other. We should be striving for both, which is why I look forward to participating in Dr. MacLatchy’s task force looking into these issues at Laurier, and I hope perhaps you might consider doing the same so we could together work towards an even stronger institutional future.

I’m sorry this came to pass the way it did, and look forward to moving past this and continue working with you as my TA and perhaps in the future.

Yours sincerely,

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Dr. Nathan Rambukkana

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