Two prominent advocates for freedom of expression are questioning why a Mount Allison psychology professor has been suspended without pay for seven months.
James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University and Toby Mendel of the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy were commenting on Mt. A’s announcement that Professor Rima Azar would not be teaching in the 2021 fall term.
In an e-mail to students, faculty and staff on May 4th, the university said its decision to suspend her was based on the report of an independent investigator who “reviewed complaints from students alleging discriminatory conduct, stemming from blog posts and student interactions,” but gave no further details.
“Unless there’s some deep, dark secret hidden in the university’s confidential report, it’s hard to imagine what this professor could have done that would warrant…suspension without pay,” Turk said during an interview broadcast on Thursday by CHMA, Sackville’s campus/community radio station.
“The university investigation would have had to have revealed some serious, unprofessional mistreatment of students in her class to warrant this,” he added. “If it’s marginally the result that she has ideas that are unpopular, then what the university has done is a very serious problem.”
Mount Allison launched its investigation in February after students complained that among other things, posts on Azar’s private blog denied the existence of systemic racism or systemic discrimination in Canada, labelled Black Lives Matter a radical group and questioned concerns about climate change.
CHMA reported that the Mount Allison Black Students’ Union issued a statement calling for Azar’s dismissal while a student activist criticized her blog post opposing calls for Mt. A. to withdraw its investments from big fossil fuel companies.
Another student told CHMA that Azar had refused a request to use they/them, gender-neutral pronouns when referring to the student in the classroom.
In its e-mail to students, faculty and staff, the university says it supports the investigator’s recommendation that Azar undergo “equity, diversity and inclusion training” and that Mt. A. has offered to pay for it.
“Students, faculty, and staff deserve to have a safe place to learn and work, and should not have to avoid any class, activity or person because of their race, gender identity or gender expression,” the e-mail adds.
Free speech advocate Toby Mendel says freedom of expression and free debate are crucial at universities even though they may make students uncomfortable.
“It’s very easy for students to say, ‘I felt uncomfortable’ and it’s very difficult to assess the actual validity of that versus they just didn’t like what the professor said.”
Mendel acknowledges, however, that universities must listen to their students.
“If students genuinely felt that they were not comfortable due to their race or even their ideas in a classroom, I think that would be an issue that a university would have to take seriously,” he says.
“This is what we don’t know about this case, we don’t know what happened in the classroom,” Mendell adds.
“What a professor writes on his or her blog, her output outside the classroom, I think that we need to give quite a lot of space for that if we’re not going to become a society where independent thinking, the essence of what universities represent, is stifled.”
James Turk agrees, arguing that universities should not suppress ideas because some might find them offensive or harmful.
“The university, if it’s going to fulfil its mission, cannot get rid of people because some other people, whether it be colleagues or the president of the university or their students, don’t like their ideas,” he says.
“We debate ideas in the university, we don’t censor and silence them.”
Azar herself is not commenting directly on her case, but does say that her seven-month suspension without pay is based on “false allegations.”
She has launched a GoFundMe page, which so far, has raised more than half of its $100,000 goal for a legal defence fund to clear her name and reputation.
Azar emigrated to Canada from Lebanon in 1990 at age 17 and writes on her fundraising page: “I precisely chose to move to Canada for democracy/freedom of expression. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
She also thanks the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) for its support.
In an e-mailed statement, MAFA President Erin Steuter confirmed the union is working to ensure Azar’s rights are upheld.
“It is the role of the union to defend our collective agreements and to ensure that the rights of a member under the collective agreement are not being infringed, and MAFA will continue to work with this member,” Steuter writes.