McGill defends academic freedom after racial slur is used in University of Ottawa classroom

This past September, the University of Ottawa suspended a professor for saying the n-word in class following a student’s complaint. Professor Lieutenant-Duval used this racial slur as an example of words certain communities have reclaimed. Her paid administrative suspension lasted one business day

More than thirty professors came to her defense in an open letter condemning the university’s actions, insisting her right to academic freedom should be protected. Students at the university were disturbed by this response and took to social media to voice their opinions. The University of Ottawa Student Union expressed their disappointment in the professors’ response, who they believed “have found their voice in defending the use of a racial slur while discounting the vast majority of uOttawa’s Black Community’s disagreement.” They also emphasized that this was not an isolated incident, alleging that anti-Black slurs have been used by professors for years without consequence. 

In their open letter, the professors maintained that offending people with words and concepts is inevitable in an environment of debate and open discussion. Laila El Mugammar, a student at the University of Guelph, does not believe it is necessary:

“Why do you need to say the n-word to teach effectively? And the answer is you don’t.”

As news quickly spread through social media, Lieutenant-Duval’s name, phone number, and address were eventually leaked. The francophone community in Quebec saw her as a victim of cancel culture and was quick to offer its support. 

The premier of Quebec, François Legault, declared that the professor did not insult anyone and criticized the University’s response, equating them to “censorship police” (this comment comes just months after his statement that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec). 

In her La Presse article, Isabelle Hachey explained that the professor’s actions were not racist, but ignorant: she was not aware that the n-word should be avoided in an academic context. Hachey then compared the incident to the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015, explaining that in one case people were offended by a picture and in another, a word. Although the link was not explicit, arguably, her article equated the actions of students to those of terrorists- declaring that students have set “fatwas against those who don’t follow the right path.”

Hachey defended Lieutenant-Duval by pointing to her Ph.D. in humanities and feminist ideology. These descriptions reveal a dangerous tendency: the belief that morality is universal, not intersectional. That someone who does right by one group of people must do good by all, and by extension that feminism implies anti-racism. Centuries of anti-Black racism at the hands of white feminists, especially the suffragette movement, which championed the white women’s vote as a means to dilute the Black man’s vote, would point to another reality.

“McGill’s understanding of academic freedom permits denying Black students the right to learn in a safe environment”

At McGill University, students received a message from their Principal, Suzanne Fortier, stating “[academic] freedom is central to McGill’s mission of advancing learning.” Although inclusivity and academic freedom may conflict, Fortier maintained that “universities should be up for this challenge.” Absent from this letter was any condemnation of Lieutenant-Duval’s actions, guidelines for professors on the use of the n-word, nor reassurances to students of color that their well-being would be prioritized.

The Black Student Network responded to this statement, clarifying that McGill’s “understanding of academic freedom permits denying Black students the right to learn in a safe environment.” 

Wisaal Jahangir, a student at McGill, echoed these concerns, emphasizing that “academic freedom is not a license for using racial slurs in class, no matter the intent or context.” Many professors across Canadian universities agree with this statement. Tania Aguila-Way, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto has asserted that “there is no reason, pedagogical or otherwise, for uttering the n-word in academic settings.”

Jahangir believes that McGill’s stance on this incident “seems emblematic of the institution’s disregard for actually addressing anti-Blackness.” In her eyes, “there is no need for debate over the fact that racialized students should be treated with respect and dignity”

At the time of this publication, the University of Ottawa has formed an anti-racism committee. Professor Lieutenant-Duval has since apologized for her actions and been reinstated by the University of Ottawa.

Article and images by Layla Razek