More than 30 University of Ottawa professors have publicly defended a colleague who used the N-word in class, saying universities are a place for debate that should protect “critical thinking and academic freedom.”
Part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval said the N-word last month during a discussion on the reappropriation of words by marginalized communities. She later apologized and asked her students to think about how the word is used to discuss it again in their next class. Lieutenant-Duval was temporarily suspended and her students were given the option of transferring out of her class.
But in a letter written in French, 34 University of Ottawa professors have come out in support of Lieutenant-Duval since her suspension, saying universities are a place “to explore the realities of history, notably the history of ideas, many of which will conflict with current popular opinion.”
Black students have denounced the incident, and said it wasn’t the first time anti-Black slurs have been used at the university in Canada’s capital.
“Students are asking that the N-word not be pronounced,” said Babacar Faye, president of the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU).
“The word has been used to demean and repress people for centuries. There is no other use of the word.”
The incident “completely ignores” the wider context at the school, Faye, 21, told VICE News. “Black students especially have been repeatedly victimized and affected by instances of racism on campus,” Faye said.
In an open letter on Sunday, the UOSU also pointed to a separate incident in which students in the Faculty of Law made multiple complaints after racist remarks were made during a Zoom class while the professor was absent.
But Lieutenant-Duval’s case has garnered the most attention, sparking a heated debate in the province of Quebec after La Presse newspaper columnist Isabelle Hachey took up the professor’s cause, accusing the university of trampling on academic freedom.
Hachey compared the treatment of the professor to a “fatwa” and said “disturbing similarities” exist between the case and the recent decapitation of a teacher in France after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed to his students.
Quebec’s deputy premier, Genevieve Guilbault, said she was “troubled” to see the university “throw this professor over to aggressive activists who speak violently against her and Francophones.”
An open letter published in Le Devoir newspaper and signed by nearly 600 university and college professors echoed that this week, saying that by suspending Lieutenant-Duval, the University of Ottawa was cracking down on freedom of thought.
But those arguments ring hollow to many Black students at the university.
“I don’t understand the justification of academic freedom,” said Saada Hussen, a 22-year-old, second-year medical student and a member of the Black Medical Student Association at the University of Ottawa.
“To us, it just seems like one large slap in the face to the Black community at the University of Ottawa… In what manner would it enrich our learning? I haven’t read or seen any argument which sheds light on this.”
Hussen told VICE News that “it’s almost a battle” every time Black students step onto the University of Ottawa campus amid recent racist incidents.
Last year, a Black student skateboarding on campus was carded, handcuffed and detained by campus security. “This was (a) humiliating and messed up experience. (University of Ottawa) security used their authority to harass and demean me,” Jamal Boyce tweeted at the time.
An independent report into what happened found that racial discrimination and inadequate training were to blame. In February, another review of race at the university recommended that the institution collect race-based data on its students and provide more inclusion and diversity training to staff.
“You have to build this thick skin,” Hussen said, adding that the letter signed by professors in defence of Lieutenant-Duval also reflects the exclusion of Black perspectives in academia.
“From that letter, what I got is this view or understanding that university education…is more catered to a select few; ‘If you don’t understand our academic freedom, then this space was never for you,’” she said.
In a statement, Jacques Fremont, the university president and vice-chancellor, said the university’s actions after the professor used the N-word incident cannot be divorced from a series of “racist and racially motivated incidents” at the university.
“It is in this context that the recent incident at the Faculty of Arts occurred, an incident that many have attempted to characterize as a simple issue of academic freedom or of freedom of expression. It is, however, more complicated than that since many members of our community judge that their right to dignity has been affected,” Fremont said in a statement.
He added that the professor “could have chosen not to use the full N-word” in the discussion, “yet she did and is now facing the consequences.”
For his part, Faye, the student union president, said the incident and the heated reaction it has incited raises a simple question: “Why do you want to say the N-word so bad?”
He added that he would like to see the university take concrete action to tackle racism and discrimination—rather than focus on this incident alone‚ and that can include more diversity training and a review of internal policies.
“It has to be a deeper conversation,” Faye said. “This is about institutional change. They can’t be superficial actions.”
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