COMMENTARY: Other Canadian universities need to take a lesson from Wilfrid Laurier’s shame

Much like the term “Orwellian,” “Kafkaesque” exists not only as a fitting tribute to the legacy of a great writer, but also as a useful and vivid adjective that can describe a situation far more powerfully than even a dozen words possibly could.

As Merriam-Webster explains it, “the word Kafkaesque is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.”

That definition is a perfect encapsulation of the absurdly outrageous (or is it outrageously absurd?) episode involving Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd. As I told her in an interview this past week, pleasant and articulate though she may be, I shouldn’t know who she is and I should have no cause to interview her. Shepherd never asked for any of this, and was thrust into a completely needless national firestorm.

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Now, after weeks of controversy, WLU has now finally confirmed what should have been obvious from the start: that Shepherd did nothing wrong. Not only that, but there was never a formal complaint filed in the first place.

READ MORE: Wilfrid Laurier admits it mishandled Lindsay Shepherd academic freedom case

It’s undoubtedly a welcome vindication, but it doesn’t undo the disgraceful treatment she was subjected to. Nor has it erased the preposterous perception that she is some alt-right provocateur seeking to intimidate and disenfranchise vulnerable students.

Shepherd’s “crime,” such as it were, was to play for students a clip of a debate on gender pronouns which occurred on TVO, Ontario’s public television network. That debate included Jordan Peterson from the University of Toronto, who, while controversial, is a tenured professor at a respected Canadian university.

Shortly thereafter, Shepherd was called into a meeting involving WLU faculty and administration – a meeting that Shepherd has the foresight to record. Had she not, it might have been difficult to believe the extent to which the “meeting” descended into a kangaroo court interrogation.

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
Extended: Excerpts from secretly recorded meeting between Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and faculty – Nov 17, 2017

Through it all, Shepherd tried in vain to discern what exactly she had done wrong, or how this issue came to light. She was told that complaints had been filed, but she was told that the exact number of complaints was information that could not be disclosed (as we now know, there were zero complaints). The whole ordeal was truly Kafkaesque.

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An investigation was launched and WLU has now disclosed those results. It concludes that there was no wrongdoing on Shepherd’s part and that showing a TVO clip in a classroom setting is a reasonable teaching tool.

So why did this happen, then? The statement from WLU’s president speaks of an “institutional failure” but then asserts that any suggestion that this is an indictment of WLU to be “unreasonable and unfounded.” It even says — in the same sentence — that this represents “(turning) the page on a very unfortunate incident” and “(making) sure it does not happen again.” So which is it?

And although Shepherd’s supervising professor Nathan Rambukkana — the one who led the interrogation — has ostensibly apologized, the tone deaf statement from the WLU communication studies faculty strongly implies that they fail to grasp why an apology was needed in the first place. It seems they still want to portray Shepherd as the villain.

The statement speaks of Dr. Rambukkana’s “academic freedom,” as though it somehow justifies the reprimand of a teaching assistant who did nothing wrong. It goes on to say that coverage of this controversy has “emboldened individuals who see themselves as noble defenders of free speech to intimidate our faculty and students .” It’s hard to see how that’s not a reference to Shepherd herself, and it’s totally unfair. She’s the one being intimidated here, it would seem.

One wouldn’t blame Shepherd for leaving WLU and finishing her studies at another university. However, she’s decided to stay put. Frankly, it’s hard to know if things would be better at any other Canadian university.

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Perhaps then the silver lining in this pointless controversy is that it’s created an incentive for other universities to try and avoid the shame and embarrassment WLU has brought upon itself. But that means acknowledging and tackling the very mindset that led to this in the first place. I’m not holding my breath.

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