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Inclusivity and Academic Freedom Are Not At Odds

Suzanne Fortier’s letter fails to condemn racism in Canadian universities

In a statement addressed to members of the McGill community on October 26, Principal Suzanne Fortier reiterated McGill’s commitment to the principles of “academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity, and inclusiveness.” The letter falsely characterizes recent conversations in Canadian universities regarding the use of the n-word, a highly offensive racial slur used against Black people, in an academic context as a “clash” between the values of “academic freedom” and “inclusiveness.” As expressed in a statement released by the Black Students’ Network of McGill, in collaboration with the Black Law Students’ Association and McGill African Students Society, Fortier’s letter displays “a failure to understand the true essence of ‘integrity,’ ‘responsibility’ ‘equity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ despite Principal Fortier’s use of these very terms.” While McGill claims to be “steadfast and unequivocal” in its commitment to these principles, the so-called academic freedom of its faculty members cannot come at the expense of racialized students’ safety and well-being. An institution cannot claim to truly value “inclusiveness” while it fails to hold professors accountable for their use of violent and racist language.

Principal Fortier’s statement is part of an ongoing nationwide conversation concerning the definition and limits of “academic freedom.” University of Ottawa professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, who is white, used the n-word in an online lecture on September 23; students widely criticized this act of racism on social media, and called for the University to condemn Lieutenant-Duval’s behavior. The University responded by suspending her for two weeks, with pay. On October 16, 34 current and retired University of Ottawa professors published a letter criticizing the University’s treatment of Lieutenant-Duval. The group claimed that “the role of university education, professors and classrooms, […] is to nurture reflection, develop critical thinking, allow everyone, (regardless of their position) to have the right to speak.” A group of Black, Indigenous and other racialized professors responded to this letter, and correctly pointed out that “being prohibited from using racial slurs even in discussions about racism is not a violation of academic freedom.” After Lieutenant-Duval’s two-week suspension period, the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ottawa Jacques Frémont announced that the professor was now “free to continue her teaching […] while enjoying her full academic freedom.” This blatantly dismisses the demands of racialized faculty and students, and creates a hostile environment for them. “Academic freedom” is not an excuse for a university to harm its own students and employees. 

Quebec Premier François Legault has condemned Lieutenant-Duval’s suspension, claiming that words “should[n’]t be banned,” and that universities “should be places for debates and freedom of expression.” This comment comes weeks after Legault reiterated his false belief that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec. Legault’s sentiment is echoed in Principal Fortier’s letter, which assumes a “tension between academic freedom […] and equity and inclusiveness.” This false dichotomy is an excuse to uphold racist policies: inclusivity and academic freedom are not “difficult to reconcile.” 

As an institution founded on the colonial legacy of James McGill, whose wealth was accumulated “through his enslavement of Black and Indigenous people and his ties to the transatlantic Slave Trade,” McGill has a responsibility to recognize the continuous anti-Black violence perpetuated through the prolific use of the n-word. This slur is a “derogatory term historically used to demean and dehumanize Black people [that] reflects and represents a violent and brutal process in which they were made to feel less than human and attempts to inferiority.” As such, its use by non-Black people remains racist, and is completely unacceptable in any and all contexts.

Academia does not exist in a social vacuum elevated above the meanings and histories of derogatory language; an academic context does not absolve scholars and students of the consequences of using racial slurs. Professors must use their platform and position of power to ensure the comfort and safety of Black students, instead of debating whether or not an offensive word may be used in class. Oppressive acts that contribute to anti-Blackness are not topics open for “debate” – the reductive framing of a racial slur as a debate about academic freedom, instead of an act of racism, is harmful. McGill’s response highlights the institution’s hypocrisy which undermines its supposed commitment to “a working and learning environment in which every member feels included, valued, and respected.” Calling for “inclusiveness” within these “debates” portrays students fighting against racial oppression as inflammatory, and calls into question whom McGill’s so-called values of “inclusiveness” consider and protect. This idea of “inclusiveness” ironically serves to exclude the racialized students who are harmed by the use of racial slurs.

Principal Fortier cites McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism and the Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Strategic Plan as examples of McGill’s commitment to creating an environment of “equity and inclusiveness;” yet, the contents of last week’s statement directly undermine the messages of Black student-led groups at McGill and at other Canadian universities. The Black Students’ Network states that “as Black students, engaging in such a discussion is dehumanizing. Principal Fortier promotes a conception of academic freedom that does not explicitly define limits to exercising it.” 

The University of Ottawa’s Student Union is calling for a ban on the use of the slur by all non-Black individuals on campus, as well as mandatory anti-oppression training for professors. The McGill Daily editorial board supports students denouncing the racist acts perpetrated in the classroom. Non-Black members of the McGill community must also act in solidarity with McGill’s Black students and student-led groups at McGill such as Black Students’ Network and Take James Down, as well as groups at all other Canadian universities. We must also recognize these acts of racism are not isolated events – rather, they are symptomatic of deeply-entrenched racism in academia. Just last week, two more instructors at the University of Windsor used anti-Black language during a lecture.

The Black Students’ Network has requested an apology from Principal Fortier, as well as a more “definitive statement […] addressing the use of the n-word, [signifying] the start of honouring the Provost’s Anti-Black Racism Plan.” Instead of conflating the usage of anti-Black racial slurs with values of academic freedom, McGill must centre the demands and the lived experiences of its Black students, faculty, and staff. The University must commit to holding the members of its community accountable; only then will it begin to build a learning environment that is truly, to the fullest degree, safe and inclusive.