Wilfrid Laurier University was under intense pressure from supporters of teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd this past fall after it reprimanded Ms. Shepherd for showing a video clip of a TV debate featuring psychology professor Jordan Peterson, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show.
E-mails criticizing the three university staff who held a meeting with Ms. Shepherd about a tutorial where she talked about Dr. Peterson’s opposition to gender-neutral pronouns, began arriving shortly after she made public a recording of the meeting. Ms. Shepherd was warned to stick to course material in her tutorials and share her lesson plans with the professor leading the course.
“I naively thought Laurier would foster a forum for discussion and thought, without bias or judgement,” one letter said. “Of course, none of these attributes were present in your discussion with Ms. Shepherd.”
As the controversy showed no signs of fading from public debate in the weeks that followed, the notes from the public to the university became increasingly crude. E-mails between staff members in the diversity and equity office also grew frustrated with the media’s interest, and with Ms. Shepherd’s continued public criticism of the university’s actions.
“This is getting out of control,” one e-mail says. “I can’t believe Lindsay won’t let this go and continues to attack people on a daily basis,” another person writes in an e-mail of support to Adria Joel, the manager of gendered violence prevention and support, who was in the disciplinary meeting.
Staff in the equity office also attempted to respond to requests for additional help from the Rainbow Centre, the campus support centre for LGBTQ students, which was the target of hateful messages during the episode in November. Some staff members were stationed in the centre, while others kept in close contact with centre staff.
The documents, obtained through freedom of information legislation, also raise renewed questions about how the university’s policy dealing with sexual violence was applied to the case. The guidelines were introduced late last year in response to the Ontario government’s demand that every higher-education institution in the province have such a policy.
Under WLU’s policy, university officials have some leeway to gather information even when a student does not want to pursue a formal or informal resolution to an incident. But Wilfrid Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy has said that faculty and staff made a “significant overreach” in applying the policy to the case. An independent investigator found that no formal or informal complaint about the video was made by any student, Dr. MacLatchy has said.
WLU will not release the independent report from lawyer Robert Centa, saying that it relates to personnel matters.
E-mails between Ms. Joel and Nathan Rambukkana, the professor for whom Ms. Shepherd was a teaching assistant, show that the two corresponded about “an issue is CS101,” the subject line of their e-mails, before asking Ms. Shepherd to speak with them. Members of the Rainbow Centre have said they spoke to Ms. Joel about concerns a student brought to them about Ms. Shepherd’s tutorial.
This week, the university reiterated that any issue that was flagged was not a complaint. “It was not a complaint as the term is defined in the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy, which Mr. Centa reviewed in establishing his findings,” the university said in a statement in response to questions from The Globe.
Dr. MacLatchy and Dr. Rambukkana have apologized for the disciplinary action she faced.
Out of 331 pages that were provided to The Globe, many were redacted, leaving behind a metadata record of the dates of correspondence between university staff, but not the substance of the letters. Some e-mails reveal that staff in the equity office struggled to monitor the public response to the controversy, messages on social media directed to the Rainbow Centre, as well as Ms. Shepherd’s Twitter feed.
WLU’s Archives also submitted a request to Dr. Rambukkana, Ms. Joel and the third faculty member in the original meeting, Herbert Pimlott, asking them to archive the e-mail they were receiving for future researchers.
“I think they help document the phenomenon of university affairs becoming global issues via the media and Internet, and of the vitriol that ensues,” the university’s archivist wrote.
Some of the e-mails received by WLU are from supporters of Dr. Peterson, the University of Toronto professor who has become a global bestselling author with his condemnation of what he sees as an intolerant left-wing in higher education. Dr. Peterson first became famous because of his opposition to Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression to human-rights legislation.
His fans contact universities on a regular basis if there is campus opposition to his guest lectures. The University of Toronto and McMaster University received hundreds of e-mails about debates and lectures he has held or attempted to hold on campus, according to documents obtained by The Globe over the past year.
A task force on freedom of expression at WLU is studying the issues raised by the case and is expected to release a statement for discussion by the university community in the coming weeks.