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Modern Educayshun: Mao, Orwell and Kafka at Wilfrid Laurier University

In November, I happily attended two convocation ceremonies for my kids. One was for my son, who received his B.A. in economics and business from the University of Victoria. The other was for my daughter, who received a B.Ed from the University of British Columbia.

Attending two convocations at two different universities within one week allowed me to reflect on how important and life-changing university was for me 40-odd years ago and how important and life-changing it has been for my kids in this decade. It may sound trite, but it’s a place where young adults fresh out of high school can discover themselves, their passions and their place in the world, while at the same time meeting different people, exploring different ideas and learning how to think critically. There’s a wonderful video UBC created about changing the world that starts out with the words “I can do anything — because I believe I can,” which sums up what a university should be.

Then, of course, I learned about Lindsay Shepherd, Wilfrid Laurier University and how a university could betray that ideal and sacrifice it on the altar of political correctness. Shepherd, a 22-year-old teaching assistant in the communications department, played a three-minute video to her class that had been previously broadcast on TV Ontario about gender pronouns. The clip featured controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s objection to gender-based pronouns and his criticism of Bill C-16, which adds gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. In a subsequent TV interview, Shepherd, (who actually disagrees with Peterson) said she presented the video neutrally in order to encourage class discussion about communication and language. “I wanted to open up with ‘any ideas are welcome here,’” she said.  

Unfortunately, encouraging discussion and critical thinking among her students at Laurier was a cardinal sin. One or more students complained. When she was hauled in for a reprimand by her supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, another professor, Herbert Pimlott, and Adria Joel, manager of Gendered and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support, she was told she should have condemned Peterson right off the bat because the U of T professor’s views were not academically credible and that there could be no debate about the issue. Oh, and Peterson’s views were somehow akin to Hitler’s.

In a Kafka-esque response the Stasi would be proud of, Rambukkana wouldn't disclose who made the complaint, how many complaints had been made or the wording of the complaint so that Shepherd could see in it context to be able to defend herself. By showing the publicly accessible TVO video in class, she was accused of creating an unsafe and toxic learning environment, the crime of transphobia, violating Laurier’s gender violence policy and somehow breaching both the Charter of Rights (which actually protects free speech) and the Canadian Human Rights Act (which didn't apply to Laurier), proving that when non-lawyers in positions of power think they know the law, they always get it wrong when they use it to bully and harass their subordinates. To quote Shepherd during her inquisition: “This to me is so wrong, so wrong.”

At the end of the meeting, Shepherd was instructed to have her seminar notes approved by Rambukkana in advance and to obtain specific approval for any future videos, specifically Peterson’s — I suppose to protect all those young, impressionable minds from other ideas.

Shepherd wisely recorded her Orwellian nightmare, which is why we know about it. When you listen to it, you should get angry. Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail compared the session to a Maoist struggle session “where party zealots gang up on a wrong-thinker and try to force her to confess the error of her ways.” Conrad Black in The National Post called it a Star Chamber. Christie Blatchford in The Post called Shepherd’s treatment an assault. Heather Mallick in The Toronto Star said Shepherd was put on trial “Handmaid’s Tale style.” I, on the other hand, thought of Modern Educayshun, that Australian satire about political correctness gone amuk.

If this had happened at UVic or the University of Western Ontario (where I went), I’d be changing my will, directing my “donations after death” to somewhere more worthy and politely hanging up the phone whenever the university called for money. Outrage from Laurier alumni, international reputational damage and the realization that inquisitors Rambukkana, Pimlott and Joel had shamefully bullied and harassed Shepherd and betrayed the very idea of what a university should be eventually led Laurier’s president Deborah MacLatchy (in “damage control mode”) to apologize — but only after Shepherd’s recording went public.

Rambukkana, possibly fearing “career repercussions,” offered a milquetoast apology. I’ve seen nothing from Pimlott or Joel, but I’m sure they’re having some sleepless nights as well. My heart bleeds.

Shepherd, on the other hand, will go far in her career, whether she continues in academia or ventures into law or journalism. If I could nominate her for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought or the Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech award, I would. It took guts to do what she did, and she didn't back down.

So, what are the lessons to be learned here?

First, it may be wise for anyone being disciplined, reprimanded, called on the carpet or otherwise harassed to record the conversation. Lawyers are precluded under their codes of professional conduct from recording conversations with clients and other lawyers without informing them, but in a situation analogous to Shepherd’s — where there is bullying, harassment, misrepresentation of the law and a power imbalance among parties — I’d be very tempted to record it anyway and take my chances with a discipline panel, the Court of Appeal and the court of public opinion. Black said that if Shepherd hadn’t recorded it and made it public, she would have been “consigned to the doghouse of the politically incorrect.” He’s absolutely right.

Secondly, when a public body requires specific beliefs or a specific world view or specific values to be agreed to contrary to Charter protected rights of freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience, it is overstepping its mandate and should be resisted.

And, finally, the idea of the university as a place where young adults can discover themselves, their passion and their place in the world while at the same time meeting different people, exploring different ideas and learning how to think critically is in great peril.

People like Lindsay Shepherd may yet save it.