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Massey College, an independent residential college affiliated with the University of Toronto, is under pressure from faculty and students to sever its relationship with one of the university's professors after a comment he made was denounced as racist.

The comment was made during lunch on Tuesday by Michael Marrus, an emeritus history professor at the University of Toronto, scholar of the Holocaust, and a Senior Fellow at Massey.

Dr. Marrus was sitting with three Junior Fellows, graduate or professional students whose academic and extracurricular accomplishments have earned them a prestigious residence spot at Massey.

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Hugh Segal, who leads the school and has the title of Master of Massey College, asked whether he could join the table. At that point, Dr. Marrus asked a black Junior Fellow: "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?"

After the students left the table, Mr. Segal stayed and spoke to the professor.

"I made it clear to the Senior Fellow that the remark was completely inappropriate," Mr. Segal said.

The three students took the issue to the dean of the college the same day and the comment was raised at a meeting of Massey's governing board the same day. A written complaint by nine students – the three present during the lunch and additional members of the diversity committee – has been lodged with Mr. Segal, who is working with Massey's governing board to deal with the requests made by the students.

In the wake of the comments, a petition signed by almost 200 faculty and students was sent to Massey College on Thursday asking for Dr. Marrus to end his association with the college.

"In our eyes, the very legitimacy of Massey College hinges on the effectiveness of your response to this incident," the petition states. "We encourage you to approach this moment with the seriousness it demands, and with the courage and vision to make this an occasion for fulsome transformation."

The petition also asks that the college issue a formal public apology, organize mandatory anti-racism training and drop the title "master" to refer to its director.

Mr. Segal said he would be open to that change.

"The term is tied to Oxbridge and the idea of master of one's craft or art, not a master-slave reference. But we should be open to revision if it is no longer appropriate," he said.

That demand has been made in the past. As a result, a task force has worked for several months examining whether to drop the title. It will report back in several weeks, Mr. Segal said.

He has also invited the students to meet with him.

Dr. Marrus did not respond to a request for comment. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the author of eight books on the Holocaust, including The Holocaust in History, Lessons of the Holocaust and co-author of Vichy France and the Jews, and a former dean of the University of Toronto's school of graduate studies.

That history does not excuse the remark or make it less hurtful or offensive, Mr. Segal said.

"His scholarship would indicate someone who has fought his entire life for human rights. Younger Junior Fellows may not be familiar with it; it is reasonable to react how they did," he said.​

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