Michael Mason's 50-year teaching career ended on a sour note. Last fall, his history classes at Queen's University were abruptly cancelled after he was accused of making racist and sexist comments in the classroom. He had used the terms "rag head," "towel head," "japs" and "little yellow sons of bitches." A student complained that his "borderline racist comments" made her "very uncomfortable." On top of that, one of his female teaching assistants complained because he'd told them they should become "mistresses."
Dirty old creep? Not so fast. The subject of the course was imperialism and neo-colonialism at the time of the Second World War. Prof. Mason was using the offensive phrases to illustrate the attitudes of that era. They were direct quotes from contemporaneous documents – a context that was abundantly clear to nearly all of the 140 students who had flocked to his popular course.
As for "mistresses," Prof. Mason had merely expressed the hope that his (mainly female) students would become masters and mistresses of the material by the end of the semester.
These nuances didn't interest the administration, which quickly called him on the carpet. The department chair sent him a letter of reprimand, saying he had contravened the university's equity policy. He was summoned to a meeting, where he was told he had failed to create a "safe space" for students. One of the administrators spoke of the need for "inclusivity" in the classroom. They told him that they had decided to open an investigation, and that he should stop teaching until it was completed.
"Some of it was almost humorously outrageous," says the 74-year-old professor, who had been recalled from retirement to teach the course. He had, in fact, invented the course, and had taught it for years with great success. "So I thought, who better?" The complaint about the "mistresses" remark, he says, came from a female graduate student in gender studies who had been appointed his TA.
Prof. Mason then took a medical leave. A dozen students wrote him letters of support, saying his course was one of the best they'd ever taken. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, meanwhile, opened an investigation of its own. Last month, it delivered a scathing report that demanded the university apologize to Prof. Mason.
It's not surprising that this academic mugging happened at Queen's. This institution has long been obsessed with the politics of gender, race and speech. Its liberal arts courses offer the usual faddish attention to race, class, gender, oppressed groups, colonialism and the sins of dead white males. It has a sizable bureaucracy devoted to improving human rights, employment equity, diversity, anti-racism awareness and so on. As the CAUT report said, faculty members "expressed the feeling that the administration tends to be 'panicky' when it comes to issues of 'racism' as there have been a number of cases in the past few years that have proven embarrassing to the university."
Queen's faces an enormous challenge. Like most universities, it doesn't have enough money to be all things to all people. It has to focus and get better at whatever it decides to do. There's no place for faddish academics any more. And there's no place for administrators who indulge disgruntled students. The university should at least have the grace to apologize to Prof. Mason for the ignominious way it ended his career.
"I'd always hoped I would have a heart attack clutching a piece of chalk," he told me. "I was hoping I'd go on to 100."