Bad Words at Ottawa U

How should academic administrators respond when offended students complain to them about their professors or courses?

In late September, in her course Art and Gender, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval mentioned the word “nigger” as an example of a word used to denigrate a class of people that was then taken up by that same people. Dr. Lieutenant-Duval called this phenomenon “subversive resignification.”

A student told Dr. Lieutenant-Duval that she (the student) were upset at hearing the word in class, and Dr. Lieutenant-Duval expressed her regret at having upset them. Dr. Lieutenant-Duval then invited the class to discuss whether people should avoid mentioning or using that word, even if they do not intend to insult or demean anyone. The invitation to discuss this question upset the student and some of their classmates even more.

On Thursday, October 1st, the University of Ottawa announced through Media Relations Manager Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn that it was investigating Dr. Lieutenant-Duval’s actions to determine whether, in speaking the word “nigger” and in proposing that the class discuss the merits speaking it, she violated anyone’s “right to an environment free of discrimination and harassment and to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The next day, Faculty of Arts Dean Kevin Kee issued a statement that said, both presumptively and falsely, that “This language was offensive and completely unacceptable in our classrooms and on our campus.” Dean Kee went on to repeat that “Everyone at the University of Ottawa has the right to an environment free of discrimination and harassment, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Dean Kee suspended Dr. Lieutenant-Duval’s class while he considered what to do next.

The class resumed Friday, October 16th(a newspaper report said that Dr. Lieutenant-Duval “returned to work” that day). At that point, the class was on hiatus for at least a week, likely almost two.

In a student newspaper, University of Ottawa President Jacques Frémont was quotedas saying “‘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,’ … ‘This was a necessary step to accommodate and respect the rights of all.’”

Soon after, thirty-four professors at the University wrote of their disgust at the administration’s treatment of Dr. Lieutenant-Duval, and over five hundred Francophone professors and teachers from Quebec and Ontario added their names to a separate expression of dismay written by two CEGEP teachers. (Both groups are to be commended for the quality of their analysis and evaluation and for their wisdom and courage in speaking publicly.)

President Frémont has issued two statements so far, and U of O Rector Daniel Jutras has issued a third.

That Dr. Lieutenant-Duval did absolutely nothing wrong in using “nigger” as an example, and then in inviting her class to discuss who may and who may not say that word, has not yet been affirmed in any U of O statement or document of which I am aware. Instead, President Frémont and Rector Jutras have followed Media Relations Manager Mailloux-Pulkinghorn and Arts Dean Kee in reminding us of the right of members of the university community to “dignity” and to “an environment free of discrimination and harassment.”

But no students were subjected to an indignity, intentional or not, not even to a mild one. No rights were violated or threatened, no one was harassed, no one was discriminated against. In fact, no one could havesuffered an indignity or have been harassed or discriminated against, for they were in a class with a teacher engaged in the intellectual investigation of a matter at hand.

President Frémont, Rector Jutras, and Dean Kee seem to think that, when the complaint arrived on their desks, they were confronted by a clash between academic freedom in teaching and dignity or respect—that, in discussing this question, Dr. Lieutenant-Duval treated some students disrespectfully. That’s pure nonsense.

In his statement, Rector Jutras wrote, “…but each must also be attentive to the unforeseen, sometimes unexpected, effect of their own discourse on others.”

Rector Jutras’ claim is fundamentally wrongheaded. What he recommends is a recipe for insincerity; following it would defeat candor and spontaneity. To worry about the “unforeseen effects” of one’s words on others is to treat those others as less than free and equal autonomous agents.

Adding a second section for students who wanted to continue the course but not with Dr. Lieutenant-Duval is perhaps the worst decision an academic administrator could make in this situation. President Frémont is wrong to think there are any rights in play that need accommodating. Creating a second section suggests that students who felt hurt or offended were correct to feel that way; further, it expresses disdain for Dr. Lieutenant-Duval.

I wonder about the professor who will teach the parallel section. Does he possess the academic freedom to speak the word “nigger” in conducting his classes? Or is he constrained by fallacious notions of propriety or proprietorship? (And who on Earth would have agreed to step in? Are professors thatcorrupt?)

It’s clear that what happened here is wrong. But what should have been done? Well, as soon as he heard that a student had been upset by Dr. Lieutenant-Duval’s choice of words, Dean Kee should have clarified for anyone listening the nature of academic discourse (free, open, candid, unabashed, critical, reflective, directed toward articulating and understanding the matter at hand) and explained that no one’s dignity is compromised by serious classroom discourse (on the contrary), no matter what is said during it.

Leaders at the University of Ottawa have yet to explain publicly that a teacher mentioning the word “nigger” in good faith does not thereby insult or demean anyone. Anyone hurt by hearing this word mentioned (or even used, when not used to denigrate) is not attuned to the academic project of trying to understand the things of the world. Those who are hurt by hearing a teacher speak a particular word need to be initiated into the world of academic endeavor; they don’t need, and shouldn’t be, mollified.

Academic leaders must also say plainly that no topic and no position on that topic is off limits for discussion.

Not all Canadian universities have a proud tradition of protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus, or even of maintaining an environment of free and open critical discussion. I suspect only a small few do. In case after case, academic administrators have been eager to set aside freedom of expression on campus when it appears to put at risk any other value, even though the risk be small. The idea that discussion needs to be tempered by respect (in fact, discussion expresses respect) is, sadly, written into policies and official statements on most campuses.

As well, since the killing of George Floyd, Canadian university leadership has made the false (sometimes phony) claim that our universities are places of “systemic racism,” and even hubs for explicitly racist behavior. The idea that racism—systemic, unconscious, or overt—is a prevalent feature of Canadian higher education has now primed academic administrators to accept it as the cause of this or that student’s being upset.

And that is why it is hard to be confident that academic leaders have the commitment to the very mission of the university that they are responsible to preserve.

Of course, it is true that academic values are only one set of values among all the others and that other sets might need to take precedence over them on occasion. Students being upset and complaining of racism is not such an occasion. Those students who cannot hear the word “nigger” without becoming too upset to participate in class any longer, like those students upset by depictions of rape, torture, or murder in art, literature, or film, can decide for themselves to avoid triggering situations—or they can seek to change their reactions, so that they are able to approach their studies in the spirit of academic investigation.

Deans at our universities should sit down with their academic vice-presidents or provosts and formulate how they will respond to similar complaints going forward. Those plans must put the academic mission and ethos of their university first. They must embody a robust and accurate conception of respect (and not the conception often found in safe-and-respectful-campus policies). In responding to complaints, deans and others might be able to help the complainants to understand and appreciate our academic ways; but most important is for them to affirm and protect those ways.


Image: RobCA, Public Domain

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Mark Mercer

Mark Mercer is a philosophy professor at St. Mary's University, Nova Scotia.

3 thoughts on “Bad Words at Ottawa U

  1. Every worthwhile college course should preface with this disclaimer:

    TRIGGER WARNING: This course uses language in a robust, idiomatic and meaningful manner. It may also involve the use of words with which you are not familiar, words that may be deemed inappropriate, and words which have definitions you misunderstand or misinterpret. Listening to my lectures and the ensuing discussions, and reading the assigned material may make you uncomfortable and prompt you to think about things in ways that you have previously not considered. Try to realize that thinking is good and being exposed to different situations, concepts, ideas, cultures, and people is also good. All of this gets less painful with practice and assists in developing you into a well-rounded, educated adult-type individual. OOPS: TRIGGER ASSUAGEMENT: “well-rounded” does not refer to physical appearance, it is used with the meaning of “comprehensively developed and well-balanced in a range or variety of aspects”.

  2. Professor Mercer’s understanding of academic administration is quite naive.
    He apparently believes administrators have an interest
    in defending academic freedom and promoting education and free inquiry.
    The reality is quite the opposite.

    When a dean seeks promotion to provost,
    the main question is: Can this person run things smoothly
    without courting too much controversy?

    This happens in part because,
    while deans are appointed by presidents,
    they must also win an ‘advisory’ faculty election.
    A dean who wants promotion avoids major changes,
    avoids controversy, and is good at smoothing ruffled feathers.
    He avoids strong statements,
    unless they echo the academic fashion of the moment.

    It’s safe to assume that President Frémont has spent
    a good deal of his career doing exactly this,
    and is simply reverting to type.
    Frémont’s compromise is measured and designed to quell complaint.
    Should it fall short, Frémont can reasonably expect the blame to fall elsewhere.

    What would happen
    if Frémont to sit down with the offended students
    and explain that a discussion of forbidden terms
    is a legitimate part of a course on Art and Gender?
    The students might well call for his head, and they will might get it.

    Mr. Mercer– would you explain to us how this might be in President Frémont’s interest?
    If Frémont gained his position specifically because he didn’t show a spine, why should he show one now?

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