Committee will aim to assess how university can better serve members of its community
University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont announced the creation of a new committee in response to a number of headline-worthy controversies at the university surrounding academic freedom. In an email to students on Tuesday, Frémont pointed to the court of public opinion as the reasoning behind the creation of the committee.
“In recent months, polarizing events concerning the nature and limits of academic freedom and the responsibility of the University of Ottawa as an academic and research institution have generated a great deal of turmoil in public opinion and exposed some divisions within our own academic community,” read the email.
The mention of “polarizing events” appears to be in reference to the tweets of professor Amir Attaran and the utterance of the ‘N-word’ in a virtual lecture by professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval back in the fall.
Attaran’s tweets towards Quebec’s provincial government were labeled “Quebec bashing” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The public discussion led to calls for Attaran’s as well as Frémont’s resignations in an online petition with over 9,100 signatures.
Authored and signed largely by individuals from Quebec with no apparent ties to the U of O, the petition claims that “the inaction from the University of Ottawa president in the Attaran affair, and his fast and disproportionate action in the Lieutenant-Duval case illustrate his incompetence and contempt for Quebecers.”
The committee will aim to assess how the university can better serve both Anglophone and Francophone members of its community when it comes to teaching and conducting research. It will be chaired by retired justice Michel Bastarache, a U of O law graduate from 1978.
In a video message to the U of O community posted on the university’s YouTube channel, Frémont seemed to denounce professor Amir Attaran’s tweets without directly naming the professor while prefacing the reasons behind the committee’s creation.
“Our institution, like other universities, must strongly condemn all forms of racism and discrimination.”
“I will never agree that a fight against a given cause can serve as a pretext to insult other groups. I cannot overstate it, the outrageous tone, rhetoric and nature of certain tweets published over the past few days that rehash prejudices about Quebec and Quebecers are completely unacceptable,” added Frémont.
“They [the tweets] have hurt several people both inside and outside of our community, this recent controversy takes us once again back to the very basic principles of our mission, academic freedom including freedom of expression, the institutional independence of universities, and of course the values of equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Apart from the Francophone media, Frémont and the university have also been heavily criticized by Trudeau and other prominent francophone politicians such as Québec Premier François Legault. The leader of Quebec’s third opposition party, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, even went as far as to write a letter to the U of O president accusing the university of sponsoring and authorizing intolerance towards Quebec.
“Nonetheless, freedom of expression, we will agree, is not a buffet where one can pick and choose what kind of speech is deemed acceptable or not,” wrote Frémont in his response to Plamondon’s letter.
According to Frémont, the committee will issue recommendations on the issues at stake which he identifies as “academic freedom, including freedom of expression and the institutional autonomy of universities; equity, diversity, inclusion and the pursuit of true equality with the inherent legal aspects of these issues.”
Bastarache and the committee will also be responsible for exploring the challenges that these issues pose to the U of O and its unique situation as a bilingual university and the lessons that can be learned from “incidents that have occurred at the University of Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada.” The committee will then recommend the best approaches and mechanisms that can be put in place to reconcile the “issues at stake and in such situations as they arise.”
In his email to students, Frémont stated that the committee will “reflect the diversity” of the university. He did not, however, specify in what way the university plans to do this. It is still unclear who, apart from Bastarache, will sit on the committee and how members will be chosen.
Students should expect the report to be submitted to the Board of Governors this summer. It is unclear if it will be made available to the public.
“The committee will consult members of the university community, conduct the research it deems necessary, and submit its report to the president, the Senate, and the Board of Governors. This committee will reflect the diversity of the faculty members and will submit its report in the summer of 2021,” wrote Frémont.