Skip to main content

Wilfrid Laurier University is seen on Sept. 12, 2014.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Wilfrid Laurier University has completely exonerated Lindsay Shepherd, after a report from an independent investigator found that no student ever complained formally or informally about a video the teaching assistant screened in class earlier this fall.

Ms. Shepherd, a 23-year-old communications student, showed a five-minute clip from a debate on gender pronouns featuring controversial psychology professor Jordan Peterson. She was reprimanded during a meeting with Nathan Rambukkana, her supervisory professor, a member of the university's equity and diversity office, and another professor.

The university's president and Dr. Rambukkana have already apologized to her for what happened.

"It's become clear to us that there was significant overreach for invoking one of our policies on campus," said Deborah MacLatchy, the president of the university in Waterloo, Ont., on Monday. "Those policies and procedures were misapplied through errors and judgments that were made by staff and faculty."

The findings from the report by lawyer Robert Centa clear Ms. Shepherd, but will lead to renewed questions about why a group of three university staff repeatedly told Ms. Shepherd that complaints had been made. Mr. Centa's full report will not be made public because it relates to personnel matters, the university has said.

Dr. MacLatchy said she could not comment on possible sanctions for the professors and staff involved.

"I've made it clear the conduct of those involved did not meet the high standards I've set for staff and faculty," Dr. MacLatchy said. "This is a case where firing someone might seem to be an easy answer, but what has happened at Laurier in this controversy has exposed more fundamental [issues] at the institution which need to be addressed."

Ms. Shepherd said she was relieved that no student in her class had in fact launched a complaint. "As much as people criticize students for being snowflakes, it turns out it was the professors."

She welcomed Dr. MacLatchy making the report's conclusions public.

"I would have gone through my whole life thinking I offended someone and really hurt someone, and I violated policies, and it would not have been true. It's a complete abuse of their power to pretend that someone had complained," Ms. Shepherd said in an interview.

In the mid-November meeting, Ms. Shepherd faced Dr. Rambukkana, Adria Joel, the acting manager of the gendered-violence and support program, and another faculty member, Herbert Pimlott, to explain why she showed a five-minute clip on gender pronouns that had been screened on TVO's The Agenda program. Ms. Shepherd taped the meeting and later released a recording of it.

The clip was a way to help students engage with the subject of how to use gender pronouns, she said.

Screening the video has "created a toxic climate for some of the students," Dr. Rambukkana tells her in the recording.

"How many, who? One?" Ms. Shepherd responds. "I have no concept of how many people complained, you have not shown me the complaint," she says.

"There are confidentiality matters," Dr. Rambukkana says. "It's one or multiple students who have come forward saying that this is something that they are concerned about and that it made them uncomfortable," he continues, an assertion that is repeated by the other administrators in the room.

She is told she violated the "gendered and sexual-violence policy," by causing harm to trans students and will have to send her lesson plans, and any videos, to Dr. Rambukkana prior to her tutorials.

Mr. Centa's report presents a different version of how the screening of the debate came to the attention of the staff members, the university's president said.

Students in the class talked about the video screening on campus, and staff in the diversity and equity office found out about those conversations, although Ms. Joel was not asked to intervene.

"The information came via the staff person, from students who had been on campus talking about it," Dr. MacLatchy said. "The policy was not designed to deal with those kind of comments and concerns not actually being raised through the process."

The gendered and sexual-violence policy will be reviewed and clarified as a result of the incident, the president added. Training for faculty and teaching assistants on how to establish guidelines for what is expected of TAs will also become mandatory.

A long and heated debate has surrounded the case on social media. More than 60 faculty members signed a petition saying that the university needed to do more to shield queer-community members from harassment and intimidation.

"As a president, I remain very troubled, and regret that the consequences of these recent discussions were felt most acutely by the [LGBTQ] community," Dr. MacLatchey said. "It's incumbent not only on the university, but society as a whole to continue to take these concerns very, very seriously."

Ms. Shepherd said speech and actions must remain separate. "I am willing to take [safety concerns] seriously once I see the police files about what was done to them," she said.

Interact with The Globe