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The letter from the U of O profs
Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum

Professors argue freedom of academic expression is threatened

A group of 34 current and retired University of Ottawa professors have signed a letter to express their disagreement with the University’s treatment of professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval. 

On Oct. 2, the Fulcrum broke the story that the professor was facing backlash from students and under investigation by the faculty of arts after an email was leaked of her apologizing to a student for uttering the ‘N-word’ in a previous lecture. According to La Presse, she has not taught since the beginning of October. 

Translated from French by the Fulcrum’s editor-in-chief, the professors argue within the letter that two elements seem to be confounded in this unfortunate affair. First, that “racism on campus, microaggressions, and the sometimes unconscious, but nonetheless real discrimination to which minorities are victims, must be denounced. Secondly, is that “the role of university education, professors and classrooms, which is to nurture reflection, develop critical thinking, allow everyone, (regardless of their position) to have the right to speak.”

 “This collective letter was produced in response to an article published in the national newspaper, La Presse, which raised the issue of academic freedom,” said Jonathan Paquette, a professor of public administration who signed the letter. “A number of professors felt it was necessary to do so in order to obtain important clarifications because it raised implications that were far broader than those highlighted in the case.”

The letter states “classrooms (may they be physical or virtual) cannot become an area freed from the weight of history, of ideas and their representations. It is inevitable that certain lectures, certain concepts, certain words will hurt some susceptibilities. University is precisely the place to reflect on this reality, to historicize it, and to scientifically break free from tyranny, both from majorities and from presentism.”

François Charbonneau, professor at the school of political science who signed the letter, spoke about the contents, specifically referencing the work of Pierre Vallières.

Charbonneau mentioned Vallières’ book White [N-word] of America (published in 1968), saying “how do [I] teach the history of [the] ideas if I have to hide the words that the authors themselves chose to use, which was at the time, wholeheartedly supported by the Black Panther movement.”

Charbonneau says that the censorship of certain words by professors is a difficult topic, as in order to enact social change, there must be forms of discussion that occur. Additionally, he spoke about teaching as a French professor and said “there’s no equivalent” for the N-word in French.

Since it was published in multiple French-language newspapers on Oct.16, the letter has circulated throughout social media, gaining attention within Ottawa and throughout Ontario and Quebec as well as on campus. 

The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) released a statement late Sunday night addressing the “several instances of racism happening within [our] classrooms this semester,” including the incident regarding professor Lieutenant-Duval and the recently-circulated letter. 

In the statement, the Union explained they are “deeply disturbed by the ignorant, invalidating and reprehensible comments made in support of [Lieutenant-Duval] in La Presse by columnist Isabelle Hachey.”

“We are also deeply disturbed by the open letter defending the use of racial slurs in classrooms co-signed by a group of 30 professors at the University of Ottawa. Though these individuals and groups often sit silent when asked to vocalize support for their BIPOC students, they’ve found their voice in defending the use of a racial slur while discounting the vast majority of uOttawa’s Black community’s disagreement. This is appalling.”

The UOSU emphasized their solidarity with Black-led student groups on campus “in condemning all forms of racism and discrimination to the strongest degree.” The statement was supported and endorsed by 20 other recognized U of O student governments, all of which collectively asked the University to take action against those who signed the letter. 

“In light of this responsibility, and as a bare minimum, we call on the University of Ottawa and President Jacques Frémont to denounce these professors, not just through words, but through actions.”

“Although these may be the actions of individuals, the University of Ottawa has a responsibility to ensure that racialized students are able to feel safe, included and able to succeed to their full potential in our classrooms, virtually and in-person.”

“We often say that racism has no place on our campus, yet it seems to have been enrolled into our classrooms. Incidents like these make racialized students feel unwelcome and question their belonging to the uOttawa community.”

As of the publication of this article, the University of Ottawa has not publicly addressed the letter from the group of professors or the UOSU’s statement.

With files from Paige Holland

Editor’s Note (19/10/20, 3:00 p.m.): A more recent article on the situation has been published by the Fulcrum that includes statements from U of O president Jacques Frémont and the UOSU.