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Laurier launches third-party investigation after TA plays clip of gender debate

Last Updated Nov 17, 2017 at 1:57 pm EDT


An Ontario university says it’s launching a third-party investigation after a teaching assistant aired a clip of a debate on gender-neutral pronouns to two tutorials.

Lindsay Shepherd says she was conducting a lesson on grammar and was trying to show her first-year communications students at Wilfrid Laurier University that a language containing gender-specific pronouns, such as English, can wind up impacting facets of the society in which the language is spoken.

To prove her point, Shepherd aired a clip of controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson debating a fellow faculty member on a current affairs television show.

Peterson has famously refused to use gender pronouns other than “he” or “she” and was defending his position against a professor who argued it was necessary to use the pronouns that a person prefers to be called.

Shepherd claims that officials at Laurier censured her for using the clip and says they told her trying to present Peterson’s views without condemning them was tantamount to being neutral on the views of Adolph Hitler.

She tells 570 NEWS that she believes she fairly represented both view points, but the professor that was supervising her didn’t agree.

“They said presenting the issue neutrally was the problem, and I should have right off the bat condemned Peterson and not treated his views as valid. That was a problem for me, because then I would be silencing those students that agree with him, and would’ve shut down the atmosphere where we could hash out these issues.”

Shepherd says she believes in social rights, but she doesn’t believe in only accepting one style of thought or ideology.

“So I find it very dangerous to be told that there’s only one acceptable ideology when it comes to an issue, and that I have to represent that as part of my job. So one of my conditions as part of being able to keep my position as a TA is that I can no longer bring up any more controversies.”

Shepherd says she believes that when you’re learning, you need to be willing to engage in conversations that may be a bit uncomfortable, as there are people in the world who don’t agree with using gender-neutral pronouns.

“Anyone that goes out into the real world will encounter these people. So shutting down a conversation like this doesn’t do a service to students’ personal or intellectual development.”

Shepherd adds that she’s received an overwhelming amount of support from professors across Canada, and will not back down from the issue.

“If I back down, then they’ve won. This group of thinkers who think it’s okay to not listen to oppositional ideas, or different ideas, then they would win. If I back down, it’s a victory for people who think it’s okay to have only one ideological position.”

Laurier would not confirm what discussions have taken place with Shepherd, but say they have asked an unidentified “neutral third-party professional” to “gather the facts” of the case.

Meantime, Laurier posted the following statement on their website:

Our university has been in the headlines this week. The situation at the heart of the news stories and social media commentary is complex.

As president and vice-chancellor, I have a broad responsibility to balance the many and often-competing demands that come into play in these circumstances.

Let me deal first with the personnel and privacy issues. As a responsible employer, we are obligated to abide by government regulations, human rights legislation and our own university policies. To this end, we need to gather the facts of the situation and assess them in a deliberate, fair and respectful manner. To do this, we are in the process of engaging an impartial third-party professional. Given the personnel and privacy issues involved, this process will be confidential.

Related, but separate, are the important principles so closely associated with the mission of any university. I am confident that those associated with Laurier believe strongly in upholding the important principles of academic freedom, diversity of opinion, critical thought, the civil debate of competing ideas, free speech, and freedom of expression. The real question, however, is how do we encourage and implement these fundamental ideals in a world that’s more aware of the importance of inclusivity and yet, at the same time, is growing more polarized?

I am encouraged by the many people who have been moved by the events of the past week to share their points of view. These issues are clearly important to a great many people at Laurier and beyond.

I believe that as a university community we need to have more conversations about how academic expression happens throughout our institution. To be focused and constructive, these conversations should take place outside of the specific contexts that, for good reason, are often constrained by privacy legislation, employer regulations, and other legal requirements. Both rights and responsibilities have to be included in these conversations.

To this end, I will be striking a task force charged with a mandate to explore and consult on how we encourage and protect these important principles at Laurier. My goal is that we work together as a diverse community to build on the many best practices already underway here and share our made-at-Laurier solutions with ourselves and the wider community.

In the coming weeks I will be seeking input on how best to populate the task force and refine its mandate. I look forward to hearing from all of you as we work together to illuminate the many positive ways in which we live and implement these important values and principles at Laurier.


Deborah MacLatchy, PhD
Wilfrid Laurier University