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Massey College head Hugh Segal says more formal codes of conduct should be considered after the college has been at the centre of public debate over a racially offensive remark made by retired history professor Michael Marrus.Michael Hudson/The Canadian Press

A student complaint about racially offensive comments made by a retired University of Toronto professor shows the need to consider more formal governance structures and codes of conduct for Massey College students, faculty and visiting researchers, says Hugh Segal, the head of the college.

"Should we evolve as we move to an era where governance is more specific and organized than it has been in the past?" Mr. Segal said. "I think governance sometimes has to change to deal with more complex matters."

Massey is a residential college for graduate students that is affiliated with the University of Toronto, but independently governed. It has long been run by its own governing body and has fewer formal rules and codes of conduct for its members than the university does.

For example, student members have a code of conduct, but faculty or visiting members, called "senior fellows," do not.

For the past week, the college has been at the centre of public debate over a comment made by retired history professor Michael Marrus, who resigned as a senior fellow this week.

Dr. Marrus made a racially offensive remark to a black graduate student on Sept. 26 about the formal title of "Master" traditionally given to the head of the school. Massey has been examining whether to drop the title, given its historical connotations in reference to slavery.

(The title is currently suspended.)

Students filed a complaint with Mr. Segal over the remark the same day. An attempt by Mr. Segal to find a way to resolve the complaint informally ended when the incident became public two days later, leading to apologies from the college, the University of Toronto and Dr. Marrus.

The debate continued on Thursday when more than 20 members of the university's Black Faculty Group, from a cross-section of disciplines, released a letter asking Massey and the university to address systemic racism on campus.

"Such racist remarks and jokes – in this specific case, one that directly referenced brutal histories of slavery and anti-black violence – are all-too commonplace and gain resonance from the fact that they are only one dimension of the systemic racism that Black people, people of color and indigenous people often have to negotiate on a regular basis," the letter said.

The students who filed the complaint have not spoken to The Globe and Mail about the incident. But newspaper opinion pieces published by student members of Massey have spoken out about discrimination they have faced in academia.

Dr. Marrus, a renowned Holocaust scholar, has said he was disappointed that the students did not accept his apology.

"Where was the due process, where was the effort to hear me out?" he said on Sunday in an interview with The Globe.

Mr. Segal insisted that in spite of the incident, Massey is a civil place that does not allow discrimination.

"I don't think Massey is a place that is hospitable to racism or bigotry, I think quite the contrary."

A governance committee at Massey has been working for the past year on the question of what kinds of processes should decide the affairs of the college, from how fellows are nominated to codes of conduct to complaints.

Still, moving from flexible to more formal governance and rules will not be easy, Mr. Segal said.

"Let's remember senior fellows are not employees, they have their own careers outside the college … The ability of whoever is head of college to [assess] them does not exist," he said. "How you even go about doing that is part of the discussion."

Mr. Segal made his remarks in response to a question from The Globe during a University of Toronto public forum on social inequality on Wednesday.

About a dozen students disrupted the beginning of the forum, walking on stage with posters protesting against the panel, which featured Mr. Segal, columnist Andrew Coyne, lawyer Stephen LeDrew, and Sarah Kaplan, a professor at the Rotman School of Management, who was a late addition. The lack of diversity on the panel had been criticized on social media.

"It is ironic that we are trying to solve social inequality when we are not creating the building blocks to get to that solution," said Lucinda Qu, one of the organizers of the student protest.

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The Canadian Press