A professor who used the n-word in a class at the University of Ottawa said she regrets her actions, worries that she may have hurt some of her students and didn’t realize it would be unacceptable in an academic context.
Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, a part-time professor in the Faculty of Arts, was placed on administrative suspension earlier this month after saying the word while explaining how some groups had re-appropriated terms considered slurs. She returned to work two weeks later.
The incident sparked an outcry at the university, divided faculty and prompted the students' union to say the university hasn’t done enough to address the situation. Quebec Premier François Legault weighed in this week, saying universities should be places where anything can be debated.
Prof. Lieutenant-Duval said if she had known the word would hurt someone, even inadvertently, she would never have said it.
On Sept. 23 she was teaching a third-year undergraduate course with about 30 students present online, some of them students of colour, and was discussing the concept of re-appropriation. She explained that gay and lesbian communities had re-appropriated the word queer, emptied it of its negative charge and transformed it into a marker of identity. She then said that Black communities had done something similar with the n-word. She spoke the entire word out loud, however.
“I had absolutely no intention of insulting anyone or of trying to provoke a reaction or attract attention,” she said in an interview. “I’m really sorry I did.”
That night a student e-mailed to say she was uncomfortable with the professor using the word. Prof. Lieutenant-Duval apologized and suggested the class should discuss the issue the following week. They did, but the student newspaper, the Fulcrum, wrote about the incident shortly after. The university, which has also faced controversy over racial profiling by campus security, condemned the use of the word and then notified Prof. Lieutenant-Duval she was suspended with pay.
The incident has generated a great deal of attention beyond the university, particularly in Quebec.
Student union president Babacar Faye said the students' position is that the n-word should never be used in a class setting. It’s a word with particularly charged connotations for Black students, he said, and students are frustrated because they feel their views are not being heard.
“It’s very easy not to use the word,” Mr. Faye said. “We believe that the university should also take more action and responsibility with regards to the situation and address the wider issue of systemic racism and institutional discrimination at our university.”
The Canadian Association of University Teachers said Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s words, since they were uttered in the context of a class, germane to the subject and had pedagogical intent, should be protected by academic freedom. In a letter addressed to the president of the University of Ottawa this week, CAUT executive director David Robinson called Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s suspension troubling.
“An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas, no matter how controversial, expressed in the classroom,” the letter states.
In remarks prepared for a meeting of the university senate this week, University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont said the right to free expression and the right to dignity are not contradictory principles and both must be respected at the university.
Mr. Frémont said the university has been dealing with racist and racially motivated incidents for the past 18 months and has held many town halls to discuss these issues. He added that what might appear trivial to members of the dominant group can be profoundly offensive to minorities, and “members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a micro-aggression.”
“We are, like many other universities, taking stock of the systemic dimensions of racism and we have committed to making meaningful changes,” Mr. Frémont said.
The university’s treatment of Prof. Lieutenant-Duval was criticized in an open letter by more than 30 professors who argued the university had overstepped in trying to regulate the contents of a lecture that touched on a sensitive subject.
That letter was answered by a caucus of Black, Indigenous and other racial-minority professors and staff that condemned the use of the n-word at the university and said it was “appalled” that the faculty union had not consulted them before framing the issue as one of academic freedom.
“Being prohibited from using racial slurs even in discussions about racism is not a violation of academic freedom,” said the statement, signed by more than 25 faculty and other staff.
Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s expertise is in the area of representation of sexuality in visual art and she is currently pursuing a second PhD focused on the representation of bodies. She said she is supportive of movements for equality and cancelled her lecture two weeks before the incident so students could participate in a Black Lives Matter protest. Diversity has been central to her teaching and research, she added.
“These are questions that touch me profoundly. To think that some now associate my name with racism is enormously upsetting. There are no words to explain how I feel. It’s very difficult,” she said. “I don’t want my regret to be at the centre of this. I’m just as upset by the possibility that I’ve hurt someone without intending it.”
In the past she has taught the class in French, but in this case was teaching in her second language. She said she didn’t realize that in an academic context some words should not be spoken.
“If just mentioning the word in an academic context makes you racist, I find that disturbing. And scary. But I’m not opposed to these movements. I encourage them,” she added.
The university said Prof. Lieutenant-Duval will continue teaching. It created a second section of her third-year class to be taught by another instructor and moved all students into that section. Students can choose to continue with Prof. Lieutenant-Duval but must actively seek out the option by switching sections. As of Tuesday, only one student had done so.
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