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Students at the York University campus in Toronto. Administrator Martin Singer is at the centre of a controversy over a student’s request not to have to meet or work with female classmates.

Mark Blinch/REUTERS

The dean who approved a York University student's request not to meet and work with female classmates on religious grounds is defending his decision, but expressing "sincere regret" that he felt he had no other choice.

Speaking out for the first time in a letter to colleagues obtained by The Globe and Mail, Martin Singer, the dean of arts, says he ordered the student's request be granted only after "care, consideration, and concern."

But a professor's persistent refusal to heed Dr. Singer's orders has sparked a national debate about the limits of religious accommodation, and a major public backlash against the dean's decision, which scores of politicians and observers have called sexist and contrary to the gender-equality standards expected at a public university.

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Dr. Singer circulated the two-page letter to colleagues on Friday evening after three trying days of intense media scrutiny and public criticism, including from federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay, which he says has "demonized York University and myself as your Dean." He still insists the student had to be accommodated, but was distressed over the outrage his ruling has caused.

"I want to assure each of you of my unwavering commitment to gender equity and of my sincere regret that, given the specific circumstances of this request for accommodation, I was obliged to conclude that the student's request had to be accommodated," he wrote.

The student, whose identity is protected by privacy rules, is taking an online course in sociology, but the professor, J. Paul Grayson, asked students to meet in person for a mandatory group assignment. In late September, the student wrote to Dr. Grayson that "due to my firm religious beliefs … it will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women."

The student asked to complete the work another way, but even after Dr. Singer insisted he should be accommodated, Dr. Grayson refused, arguing it would make him an "accessory to sexism," support a negative view of women and set a troubling precedent.

"What if … I said, well, my religion really frowns upon my interacting with blacks?" Dr. Grayson said.

The student ultimately accepted Dr. Grayson's refusal and completed the group work as assigned, satisfied the matter was handled fairly and noting his religion "does allow for exceptions," Dr. Grayson said.

Nevertheless, university officials continue to argue that because the course was offered online, and another pupil taking it from abroad was allowed an alternative way to do the work, the student in question could not have expected he would have to meet with classmates and deserved the same option.

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In an interview, York provost Rhonda Lenton said if the student had made the same request for an in-class course, rather than one offered online, "I think that would be highly unlikely that the university would agree to grant such accommodation."

After consulting York's legal counsel and human-rights officials concerning the Ontario Human Rights Code, however, Dr. Singer also concluded that granting the accommodation "would have no substantial impact on the experience of other students." And he suggests "the student would presumably not have enrolled" had the course not been advertised as exclusively online, even though Dr. Grayson says he knows the student has taken in-person courses at York.

"I wish I had had another choice, but neither I, nor those who advised me, believe that I did," Dr. Singer's letter concludes.

But Dr. Grayson still thinks the university made the wrong call, emboldened by the outpouring of public support he has received.

"Look, York University and other universities have to recognize that they're not powerless," he said.

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