Academic freedom is no excuse for racism in the classroom


On university campuses, ‘academic freedom’ can sometimes be code for racism.

Last fall, University of Ottawa professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was suspended after using an anti-Black racial slur in her classroom.

A recent open letter signed by past and current faculty demand the University apologize to Lieutenant-Duval for the decision to suspend her—a step signatories claim would be “reconciliation necessary to rebuild the trust with [the uOttawa] professorate.”

The faculty letter called for the preservation of “academic freedom” and Lieutenant-Duval’s freedom from the “undeserved and unjust burden” of her punishment for using the N-word during lecture.

This is a terribly inappropriate approach to the situation.

Demanding an apology for suspending a member of staff diverts focus towards professors and their loss of trust in the uOttawa administration. This isn’t the appropriate perspective to highlight—it fails to acknowledge the negative impact this word has on Black students who deserve to feel safe in the classroom and the lack of protection provided for these students in situations like these.

Ignorantly using a racial slur in the classroom is dangerous. There’s no reason why the word couldn’t be abbreviated—its use by a white professor provides no value to the discussion.

Meanwhile, the Bastarache report—commissioned by the university to investigate the limits of academic freedom after Lieutenant-Duval’s suspension—openly disagreed with the apparent institutional “censorship” involved. In the committee’s opinion, the suspension was stopping the “dissemination of knowledge.

Freeing Lieutenant-Duval from her “unjust burden” sounds a lot like freedom from accountability.

Lieutenant-Duval has since returned to the classroom at uOttawa, which sends a very troubling message. Actions speak volumes, and it seems uOttawa faculty can get away with harmful behaviours without considering the students who have to live with the resulting trauma.

Discussing sensitive topics in academia is important, but not like this. Instead, those historically affected by racial slurs should feel included in a respectful and meaningful discussion in a classroom that’s a safe space for all students—not only white ones.

When it comes to offensive language, the academic freedom debate shouldn’t be happening. The mere existence of this controversy is blatant proof of the prioritization of white voices that still prevails in academia.

The damaging circumstances at uOttawa serve as a reminder that we must confront what accountability means in academia and how universities should act in correcting their failings. Hiding behind reports and committees has allowed uOttawa—and, really, all university administrations—to shake loose blame and accountability in meaningless bureaucracy.

If students can’t feel safe in an academic context, it’s important to consider who really benefits from the freedom of academic expression.

Even if one student feels uncomfortable during a lecture, professors should address the issue immediately or be otherwise prepared to face the consequences of their actions.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Everyone on campus should be held accountable for their racist actions—faculty included.

—Journal Editorial Board

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