Free speech advocates question seven month suspension of Mt. A. professor

Mt. A. Psychology Professor Rima Azar. Photo: Mount Allison University

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 expression

Toby Mendel of the Centre for Law and Democracy. Photo: CLD

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 of the Centre for Free Expression. Photo: Ryerson University

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.

NOTES

  1. To read Rima Azar’s academic biography, click here.
  2. To listen to the CHMA program that includes the full interview with James Turk, click here (then scroll down to CHMA Talks).
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12 Responses to Free speech advocates question seven month suspension of Mt. A. professor

  1. fernythicket says:

    Thank you for covering this story, Bruce. A few months ago I watched the documentary “Mighty Ira” — about Ira Glasser who headed up the American Civil Liberties Union for more than two decades in the US. If nothing else, it’s a great history lesson, but it’s also a really important (and poignant) film about freedom of speech and why as a principle it has to be protected. Of course, the ACLU focussed on government censorship of speech, but today it seems it’s corporations (social media giants) and universities, in this case, engaged in censoring. Problem is, do we want corporations, or university administration, or students deciding what can and cannot be said, keeping us all safe from nefarious actors? Personally, I think it’s a terrible idea. Today they are censoring inappropriate speech/ ideas/ conspiracy theories, but in the future it could be people saying capitalism or climate change is a problem that are being censored. Glenn Greenwald, who is a freedom of speech advocate, noted in one of his pieces that while we focus on the disinformation being spread by social media, the CIA and FBI and NSA have all managed to feed the mainstream news media with their propaganda…”information by anonymous intelligence officials”— so he says we are being distracted from the real threats. He says we have to look at where the “real power resides,” in the CIA, FBI, tech monopolies, and “Endless War.”

    • Sharon Hicks says:

      You make some excellent points, Linda. I find this issue to be truly sad commentary on the state of our society today, with the increasing controls being placed on communications at all levels.

      On one end of the ‘communication spectrum’, we have individuals fighting for “Freedom of Speech”, to enable everyday citizens to speak our minds without threat or fear of recrimination or retaliation. It is, in effect, an attempt to ‘CONTROL WHAT WE SAY’. One might ask: “What are ‘they’ afraid to hear?”

      Then on the other end of the same ‘spectrum’, we are forced to rely on “Freedom of Information” legislation to enable information-gatherers to access facts protected and hidden by ‘the powers that be’. In this case, it is an attempt to ‘CONTROL WHAT WE KNOW’. This time we might ask: “What are ‘they’ afraid to reveal?”

      One can only hope that someday, eventually, the communication pendulum might settle somewhere in the middle, as has previously happened with so many other social issues of their time … but in the meantime the nonsense continues and we do what we must to tease out the truth.

  2. marilyn lerch says:

    What has become of the practice of people sitting down in a circle and talking through controversies? Could not Mt. A have gotten the professor, the students, the University and MAFA to sit down at least initially? I am not in agreement with Professor Azar’s points of view, as I know them, but 7 months suspension without pay seems a harsh step. Certainly equity, diversity and inclusion training is called for.

  3. First of all Mount Allison University has no legal right to probe into Psychology Professor Rima Azar personal life her personal blog. Mount Allison University is not “a state within a state” like the military.

    These soft subject intellectuals that believe they hold these powers that they do not hold are indeed a direct threat to all Western Democracies with their extreme bullying tactics.

    Psychology Professor Rima Azar is also Tenured.

    “Tenure is a category of academic appointment existing in some countries. A tenured post is an indefinite academic appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, such as financial exigency or program discontinuation” Wikipedia

    The Secular Orwellian Church that Mount Allison University has become a reality. How to opposed criticisms of any kind? Well, just like the church, Mount Allison University is now an institute that promotes public shaming. If anyone disagrees with your doctrine just call that person a racist or call it a form of harassment, etc…

    This is a tactic that has been described as a reverse hand grenade attack meant to stun the victim temporarily so the other party can gain power for their so-called objectives. It is not about the quest for truth and fairness nor justice. It is about the justification for mayhem and destruction of the “Humanities”.

    Universities endorsing concepts like Critical Race Theory (CRT). Where have I heard this dogma being spouted before? Let me think for just one moment, the “Mischling Test”.

    What Mount Allison University is doing to Psychology Professor Rima Azar is no different from the methods used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A social credit system judicial review process.

    So what they are saying to Psychology Professor Rima Azar is that she will be giving the opportunity to “criticism and self-criticism”. Not the right to defend herself, she is being told to self-actualize about “equity, diversity and inclusion training” and her morality and her conduct and to reflect these findings back to this so-called committee.

    “Self-criticism was necessary in one-party states because it allowed for criticism without questioning the ideology.

    Without admitting mistakes the power would become highly inflexible. Admitting own mistakes also allows an authority to retain the position while changing the course and without looking random and unprincipled. If there are no mistakes, but there are hurdles it means all errors are in the ideology.”
    https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/1894/how-did-the-chinese-self-criticism-work-in-practice

    If this so-called committee feels Psychology Professor Rima Azar has reflected properly about her moral conduct, the committee might forgive her for having thought incorrectly.

    This self-punishment for Psychology Professor Rima Azar is for her own good. To be able to self-actualize done through proper training and methodologies about “equity, diversity, and inclusion training” with the right outcomes.

    It will ensure Psychology Professor Rima Azar will not repeat her offense of critical thinking but instead, fall in line with the correct proper doctrine of critical theory.

    Regardless Psychology Professor Rima Azar reputation can not ever recover from this social credit score that was imposed on by Mount Allison University is also now part of Psychology Professor Rima Azar permanent digital footprint and was done without her consent. This is also a form of character assassination of Psychology Professor Rima Azar that was perpetrated by Mount Allison University.

    To technically discriminate against someone, one would have to deny someone a benefit. Let’s say suspending someone without pay. Based on denying someone the fundamental right of “freedom of expression”. This type of action in my humble opinion would be highly dubious.

    I would point out to people also the costly fallout of a similar case at a selective liberal arts school in the United States at Smith College dealing with similar issues and accusations without merit.

    Sincerely Demian Hammock,

    BFA, Mount Allison University; Diploma of Advanced Studies, Human Resources Management, NBCC.

  4. Felix Baerlocher says:

    “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,”
    This pretty much sums up the case against the suspension of Dr. Azar.

    I’m also sceptical of the value of Diversity training. It reminds me of the notorious Re-education camps in the Soviet Union, North Korea and China, not to mention Winston Smith’s experience in Orwell’s 1984.

    There is very little evidence that such training even achieves its stated objectives (Why Corporate Diversity Training Fails, by Alexandra Kalev, Tel Aviv University & Frank Dobbin, Sociology, Harvard University.

  5. Marika says:

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-lesson-in-campus-consequences-11579134145

    Looks like a likely consequence of this administrative idiocy… declining enrollment, layoffs, etc.

  6. Elaine MacDonald says:

    From what I understood reading about this in another article (I believe CBC), the professor mentioned students and her thoughts on them on her personal blog.

    IMO that crosses the professor/student line.

    Regardless of her beliefs on things and how I may agree or disagree with them, she is someone working for the University and if her blog is public, and she is criticizing students on it in any way, that is NOT something that will benefit the University.

    So I think she’s lucky not to be fired.

  7. Dave says:

    As far as I can tell from looking at the blog, she was critiquing public positions by students, not positions taken by them in private or in-classroom interactions, which I agree wouldn’t be appropriate. I don’t know if they were her students or not, but either way, when one takes a public position (i.e., Divest MtA), it’s fair game for someone to take a contrary public position.

  8. Nyom says:

    You’re Next | Dr. Rima Azar | The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast – S4: E28

    https://youtu.be/cIw8mH7ZpFY

  9. IndieMediaEastcoast Canada says:

    Interesting times… witch hunts and mobbing … these things happen in the social media age one thing I have just noticed is that safs.ca appears to have been ‘hacked’ or lost… free speech upsets people who have been raised to only be allowed to have specific opinions fed to them. This is the result of years of ‘programming’ in education.. so the older people 50 or so and up are the only people who will remember freedom of speech and freedom of expression. There is a smugness the young people display when they are able to ‘shut people down’ and ‘deplatform’ them that I find particularly sinister and Orwellian [1984].

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