panel on academic freedom and anti-racism
The faculty of social sciences welcomed panellists Dr. West and Dr. Lashley. Image: Faculty of Social Sciences/Provided
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Conversation speaks to related controversies at the U of O

On Friday, Feb. 18, the University of Ottawa’s faculty of social sciences organized a virtual panel on anti-racism and academic freedom. More than 1,000 people attended the panel.

The event was presented by the Vulnerability, Trauma, Resilience and Culture Research Laboratory (VTRaC) and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Black Health (ICBH). With support from the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue, host and U of O associate professor of psychology Dr. Jude Mary Cénat welcomed two speakers: Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Myrna Lashley. 

West, a well-known American academic, philosopher and outspoken activist, joined the panel less than a year after his publicized departure from his post at Harvard University. 

Dr. Myrna Lashley is a Canadian academic currently working as an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University. Lashley was formerly the director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and currently chairs the Cross Cultural Roundtable on Security.

The panel was held in light of the debate on academic freedom that took place at the U of O in the aftermath of professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval’s use of a racial slur whilst teaching to a virtual classroom in the fall 2020 semester. 

Academic Responsibility

Lashley and West engaged in an open discussion about the relationship between anti-racism and academic freedom. They placed emphasis on truth and contextualization within academic freedom and the responsibility academia has to keep these things in mind. 

“We try to have a historical backdrop that allows us to situate ourselves in light of our vocations and our callings, not just our professions and our careers,” said Dr. West.

Dr. Lashley agreed, adopting a similar tone with regard to the role of history in academic discourse. In particular, she drew attention to what she calls “academic responsibility.”

“Our history is who we are. And if you’re going to talk about academic freedom, you have to incorporate that history within your teachings. We have a responsibility to teach the true history. There is no academic freedom in that sense. It is academic responsibility,” said Lashley. 

Navigating the Classroom

The conversation then explored the vocabulary used in classrooms and how best to manage the situations that may require intervention and discussion.

“The concern is behind the motivation and the intention behind certain kinds of words. In the name of anti-racism people end up policing other people’s language,” said West.

“You don’t police people, you render them accountable and answerable, and tell them stories and analysis as to why they are ending up using this kind of language with these perceptions of the world,” said West.

Lashley went on to explain the inherent biases all people have formed due to the origins of our education systems.

“They have to unlearn the myth that they have created about us. We have always been taught that myth. We were taught in the eurocentric manner. Not only do we have to deconstruct it, we have to dismantle it. And then together we have to co-construct together a new history that belongs to all of us,” Lashley said.

In a direct reference to the ongoing academic freedom controversy at the U of O, Cénat asked the panelists how they felt about professors who claim that academic freedom should give them the right to use derogatory terms in the classroom.

“It’s disrespectful,” Lashley said.

“Free speech is not some kind of unconditional thing. It’s always relative to some context, and we are not going to put up with any kind of intentional degradation of any group, no matter who they are. I believe in accountability,” added West.

Continuing Initiatives

Cénat organized this event after sitting on the Committee on Academic Freedom commissioned by the U of O’s President Jacques Frémont. In an interview with the Fulcrum, he spoke about the reasons he developed the panel for the event.

“In Canada, we continually oppose academic freedom to anti-racism. It is not my view, the true academic freedom. [True academic freedom] is anti-racist and comes with academic responsibility,” he said.

He told the Fulcrum that this issue is not just with respect to the U of O’s social sciences faculty.

“It is a problem with all universities. I think it was imperative to have that conversation between one of the most important Black Canadian scholars and one of the most important Black American scholars. And Black History Month was an opportune moment to do this,” said Cénat.

Cénat points students towards a bilingual training on becoming anti-racist, run through VTRaC, to continue their advocacy, education and allyship. 

“I think this is one of the best things we can do to fight racism is educating people,” he said.