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Jacques Frémont
Image: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik/Fulcrum

Professor to keep teaching at U of O with full academic freedom

University of Ottawa president and vice-chancellor Jacques Frémont broke his silence to address the “recent incident at the faculty of arts wherein a part-time professor used the N-word during a class.” 

In a message sent to the U of O community early Monday morning, Frémont announced that professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, the professor who used the ‘N-word’ in an online lecture, had returned to work on Friday. 

“Throughout these recent days the professor in question has remained an employee of uOttawa,” wrote Frémont. “During the several days during which she did not teach the university organized a coordinated return for her class with her cooperation. She is free to continue her teaching (which she returned to last Friday) while enjoying her full academic freedom.”

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

“The leadership of the faculty of arts proactively met with students and established a new section of the course in question to serve students who did not wish to continue their classes with their original professor,” explained Frémont. “This was a necessary step to accommodate and respect the rights of all.”

On Oct.16, a group of 34 current and retired U of O professors expressing their disagreement with the University’s treatment of professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval published a letter in multiple French-language newspapers.

“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.”

Translated from French by the Fulcrum’s editor-in-chief, the professors argued within the letter that “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.”

The U of O’s president addressed their concerns with academic freedom in his message stating “Freedom of expression and academic freedom are essential to the functioning of any university. We must fight to ensure that these freedoms remain ubiquitous in our daily lives.”

“Personally, I can assure you that I regularly fight to protect the freedom of expression of my colleagues in response to the steady stream of people writing to my office concerning things that have been written or said and demanding that their author be sanctioned.”

“Every day difficult conversations are held on our campus and in our classes, on all sort of issues. Critical thinking depends on academic freedom.”

The professors also argued 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.”

Frémont stated in his message that “contrary to so much of what has been written in recent days, the right to freedom of expression and the right to dignity are not contradictory principles, but complementary. They must co-exist with one another.”

“This is the task we have been given.”

Since its publication, the group’s 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 (prior to the release of Frémont’s statement) 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.”

Frémont’s statement later addressed the concerns shared by UOSU.

“We are, like many other universities, taking stock of the systemic dimensions of racism and we have committed to making meaningful changes to address these issues,” wrote Frémont in his message. 

“One dynamic raised regularly in our conversations has been that of the aggressions and micro-aggressions to which members of uOttawa’s Black and racialized communities are subjected. What might appear trivial to a member of the majority may be perceived as profoundly offensive to members of minority communities. Members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a micro-aggression.”

However, after Fremont’s statement was published early Monday morning, UOSU released an additional statement expressing dissatisfaction with the message from the U of O president.

“The message sent by Jacques Frémont to the University misses the mark and fails to properly address the concerns raised by students,” wrote UOSU’s president Babacar Faye in response to Frémont’s message on Monday afternoon. “Students, Black students, are essentially being told to toughen up and move on, as usual. Intended or not, this will have the effect of restricting constructive conversations for students. It will undoubtedly leave them increasingly exasperated and many Black students feeling alienated.” 

“This is not about academic freedom, this is about the use of the N-word in classrooms and its effect on Black students. I’m especially worried about the silencing effect on BIPOC students. Procedural fairness aside, Fremont’s letter does not go far enough to address and effectively invalidates the personal experiences of the Black students in that classroom through his defence of academic freedom despite campus-wide conversation and calls for institutional change.”

At this time, the group of professors who wrote the letter to the U of O administration have not publicly commented on Jacques Frémont’s message. This article will be updated as soon as more information becomes available. 

Editor’s note (19/10/20, 5:40 p.m.): This article has been updated to include a new statement from the University of Ottawa Students’ Union.

—With files from Paige Holland