Tensions High at Toronto College as Prof Resigns Over Racist Joke

A senior fellow at Massey College was forced to resign after joking about college’s head being a black student’s ‘master.’
October 6, 2017, 8:46pm
Prof. Michael Marrus (left) and Hugh Segal (right).  via YouTube, CP. 

Tensions are at a boiling point at the University of Toronto's Massey College, days after a history professor who made a racist joke to a black student resigned from his post, and despite apologies and a resignation, the controversy doesn't seem to be dying down.

On September 26, head of the college Hugh Segal, whose official title until recently was 'Master,' walked up to a table at lunch, where a history professor was sitting with three students. The prof Michael Marrus, a senior fellow at the college, turned to the black student at the table and said, in reference to Segal, "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?"

The incident shows that the college, which is associated with U of T, but is independently governed, needs to consider more formal governance structures and codes of conduct, said Segal to the Globe and Mail Friday. Right now, visiting members or 'senior fellows' don't have a code of conduct to follow.

Deborah Cowen, a geography professor who has been working with students and faculty to raise the issue with the university, described the temperature on campus as 'simmering rather than cooling."

"Since the incident at Massey, there have been instances of backlash against those who have raised their voices, and the tension on campus is palpable," Cowen told VICE. "We are hearing more and more accounts of racism in classrooms and residences, in encounters with campus security, and with colleagues—not because their existence is brand new, but because the [students] opened up a space for people to name it."

On Monday, after about 200 students signed a petition calling for him to be let go, Marrus resigned from his fellowship.

"First, I am so sorry for what I said, in a poor effort at jocular humour at lunch last Tuesday," Marrus, a renowned Holocaust scholar, wrote in his resignation letter to Segal. "What I said was both foolish and, I understood immediately, hurtful, and I want, first and foremost, to convey my deepest regrets to all whom I may have harmed."

But Marrus, who said he'd been trying to apologize to the student, is disappointed that the student hasn't accepted his apology, he told the Globe and Mail. "Where was the due process, where was the effort to hear me out?"

"I was so sorry for having wounded someone," Marrus said. "But nothing availed."

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE.

A group of junior fellows also asked for a formal apology from the college, an immediate title change for the 'master' role, mandatory anti-racist training for all fellows, and a formal meeting with Segal and the college's administration on how to address the incident and other issues affecting racialized members of the college.

Segal has since condemned Marrus' remarks and "set aside" the title of master, opting to be called "head of college" for the time being, and agreed to meet with students. He's also asked for the governing board to formally change the title.

But as that scandal seemed to come to a close, another one popped up.

On Wednesday, about a dozen black students crashed a talk on the topic "Social Inequality: Is it a real problem? Can it be solved?" at the university, featuring a panel of three white men—Segal, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, and moderator Stephen LeDrew. Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School, also a white woman, was added after the panel was dragged online for its lack of diversity.

"We feel it's important to hold these institutions accountable," said one of the student protesters on stage. "When we are talking about solving society's greatest problems, to only have the most wealthy, it tells us that this panel does not speak for us. And the fact this panel could not realize amongst themselves realize what the issue was?"

The head of U of T's political science department, which co-hosted the talk, admitted in a statement the following day that the title of the talk "was open to being read as a challenge to the reality of inequality."

"This was never the intention of the organisers but we very much regret the hurt that nonetheless resulted," she said.

Many U of T students and faculty say racism at the school goes far beyond Marrus. On Thursday, more than 20 members of the university's Black Faculty Group wrote a letter to Massey College and the university, demanding that they do more to address systemic racism, in light of Marrus' remarks.

"What happened here is that he got caught saying it," women and gender studies professor Beverly Bain told VICE. "The only difference is that he said it in the presence of people that challenge him, he exposed himself...but what he did is not just about him. This is about a certain kind of culture and an environment that allows and invites this kind of behaviour."

Students at the college have been working to change the "master" designation since last fall, when a junior fellow wrote a letter to the college, explaining how the title is "linked to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, indentureship, torture, and other cruel aspects of our collective world history."

The media's reporting about the incident, on top of the incident itself, has been "devastating" to the black student Marrus was speaking to, Bain told VICE, who called the commentary decidedly "anti-black."

Over the past week, a number of columnists have written about their disappointment with Massey College's handling of Marrus' comments and his resignation, pointing to his Jewish background and history of studying anti-Semitism, and decrying the end of universities as "venues for free inquiry."

"The articles have more or less attempted to defend Massey College's right to exist as it does, which is in a male, white, heteronormative, hierarchical and sexist environment... that Massey and U of T and institutions of that nature continue to foster," said Bain.

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