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The University of Ottawa campus is seen in an undated file photo. Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, a part-time professor at the university, was placed on administrative suspension last year after using the n-word in a class.

When the University of Ottawa suspended a professor last year for using the n-word during an online seminar, the incident reverberated in Quebec more than anywhere else in Canada.

Although the bilingual U of O is in Ontario, it counts thousands of francophone Quebeckers among its alumni and student body. The professor in question, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, was also francophone. And her suspension became an instant cause célèbre in Quebec.

Quebec Premier François Legault rushed to Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s defence and denounced the U of O administrators who sanctioned her for using the n-word during a lecture to illustrate the concept of subversive resignification: the process by which an insult is reappropriated by those it is meant to harm. Although she employed the word in a strictly academic context, some students complained about her use of such an offensive term. U of O president Jacques Frémont defended her suspension by saying: “Members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a microaggression.”

Stories soon emerged of similar controversies also erupting on Quebec campuses, prompting Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann to strike a commission to study the state of academic freedom at the province’s universities and recommend ways to protect it. The Commission scientifique et technique indépendante sur la reconnaissance de la liberté académique dans le milieu universitaire tabled its report on Tuesday. It did not pull its punches.

The commission, led by Université du Québec à Chicoutimi vice-rector Alexandre Cloutier, called on the Quebec government to enshrine the principle of academic freedom in a new law that would require universities to protect faculty from suffering the same treatment as Prof. Lieutenant-Duval.

“In their pedagogical context, classrooms cannot be considered ‘safe spaces,’ particularly when this context is illustrated by the existence and maintenance of an environment exempt from the confrontation of ideas or questioning,” the commission’s report said. “All ideas and all subjects can be debated in a rational and argued manner within universities.”

The commission stated that “trigger warnings” that alert students to potentially offensive or traumatizing course content should be offered at the discretion of individual professors, and that they should not be a requirement imposed by university administrators.

A survey of 1,079 Quebec university faculty members conducted on the commission’s behalf found that 60 per cent reported having avoided using certain words in class, while 35 per cent reported having stood clear of certain topics altogether. Many described a suffocating atmosphere on campus, where the fear of being singled out for verbal transgressions reigns and where administrators refuse to stand up for them.

“The testimonies provided to us shed light on the reasons for the practice of self-censorship and its impact on university research,” the commission reported, noting that the media coverage of the Lieutenant-Duval affair had served to inhibit many faculty members from doing their jobs freely.

One professor reported having removed a quotation from a 19th-century text that included the n-word to avoid being targeted on social media, “even though the quotation is crucial in the study of creole languages.” Biology instructors reported having avoided discussions surrounding physiology and gender. “Many people even mentioned feeling obligated to avoid certain texts or literary currents that they would otherwise have wanted to broach in class, in part because they did not feel adequately protected by their institution,” the report said.

The perceived failure of university administrations in this regard led the commission to conclude that government legislation is needed to require publicly funded institutions of higher learning to conform to a provincially mandated framework to protect academic freedom on campus. The idea is naturally unpopular with university administrators who consider their institutions autonomous. And it remains unclear whether the Legault government will go as far as legislating academic freedom. Ms. McCann saluted the commission’s “excellent work,” but did not immediately say whether the government will implement its recommendations.

Commission chair Mr. Cloutier, a former Parti Québécois MNA, conceded that legislation protecting academic freedom would set Quebec apart from other jurisdictions – but in a good way. “We think Quebec can become a model elsewhere in the world and that it will even make it attractive for students to come and study in Quebec, because they will know they have the right to express themselves freely.”

Mr. Cloutier said protecting academic freedom has broader implications for society, since often the ideas that emerge on campus inevitably percolate beyond the ivory tower. “We must preserve that, because it is directly linked to democracy,” he added.

It is astonishing that, in 2021, anyone should need reminding of that – least of all the people who run universities.

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