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Queen’s University is under fire after students complained that one of its instructors has been teaching for several years that vaccines are harmful.

Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

A Queen's University instructor accused of using anti-vaccination conspiracy theories as course materials for a first-year health-studies course is taking a leave of absence from the university until the end of the winter term and will not teach that course next year.

Melody Torcolacci will, however, return to the classroom in the fall, and the university will work with her to ensure that her courses are intellectually rigorous and free of bias, Queen's provost Alan Harrison said. Dr. Harrison was asked to review the material Ms. Torcolacci used in the course and complaints made by students over the years.

"The school's view is that we can work with [Ms. Torcolacci] … [the slides] have to be taken in context and the context was the lectures. The students who were there have told us that her presentation of the issues is more balanced than might have been present in the slides," Dr. Harrison said.

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The controversy surrounding Ms. Torcolacci's course came as the debate over vaccination has polarized discussion. Hundreds of cases of measles have been diagnosed across North America this winter, a resurgence of the disease that is being attributed to low rates of vaccination in some communities, partly for philosophical reasons.

Concerns had been raised about Ms. Torcolacci's slides, in which she states that the public-health benefits of immunization have been exaggerated and suggested that some children's illnesses or disabilities could be linked to vaccines.

In his review of the course, Dr. Harrison states he is not "able to state unequivocally that the instructor's sole intention was to present the case against vaccination."

Ms. Torcolacci has been working at Queen's for more than two decades. She was a track and field coach before she began teaching four years ago. A short syllabus for the first-year "Physical determinants of health" states that the course aimed to help students "appreciate that it is cumulative, long-term exposure to seemingly harmless things that can ultimately affect your health."

The current controversy is not the first time the university has had to address student complaints about the course. Jean Côté, the director of the school of kinesiology and health studies, had spoken to the instructor about student complaints brought to him.

While she is not a tenured professor, Ms. Torcolacci has an ongoing contract with the university where she is paid to teach every year. She has taught practicums and seminars in physical activity and coaching.

"She has been severely shaken up by this and it has been, frankly, an ordeal," Dr. Harrison said.

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The faculty union said the case has led to a chilling effect among other professors, who are anxious students may now feel that posting and criticizing lecture slides publicly is academically acceptable.

"If you give a course, any student could take a slide completely out of context and blow that out of proportion," said Diane Beauchemin, the president of the school's faculty union. Dr. Harrison said he shared some of those concerns.

"Many of the people who we have heard from were not even students from Queen's. It does disturb me that people feel they have open season on this material," Dr. Harrison said.

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