Laurier Stock Photo

The St. Jerome College building at Wilfred Laurier University, Octoebr 8, 2012.

Universities should be places where students can have tough, critical discussions about uncomfortable topics — Wilfrid Laurier University seems to have forgotten that.

A TA at Laurier has come under fire after showing her class clips from a debate about gender-neutral pronouns. The debate featured the controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, and a complaint led to sanctions for the TA, Lindsay Shepherd. Later, Laurier announced it's launching a third-party investigation to look into the incident.

Laurier's response to the student complaint was overblown and problematic. Widespread debate over society's use of gender-neutral pronouns is ongoing. And where there is still room for reasonable debate or discussion, a university cannot — and should not — outright ban dissenting views. Showing both sides of a debate is important; it provokes discussion, analysis and forces students to formulate a more informed defence of their respective positions. 

Of course, there are some issues beyond the pale in terms of debate. Engaging in the vaccine-autism debate is futile; it might even be dangerous. By giving proportional credence to a position contrary to mass scientific consensus, you can give it false equivalency. As another example, Holocaust denial also has no place in a university.

But one fact that has been lost in this whole palaver is that showing a clip of Peterson doesn't mean the TA endorses his views: the TA has stated the intention of the clip was "meant to demonstrate ways in which the existence of gender-specific pronouns has caused controversy." As Shepherd stated, students are bound to be exposed to controversial ideas. Rather than censor them, a classroom is exactly the place where students should have the chance to challenge their own beliefs and biases. How else can we learn? 

Generously interpreted, Laurier's third-party probe is well-intentioned. Gender identity, unlike other political or economic debates in the classroom, can be a painfully personal topic: for students in that classroom who identified outside of the traditional binary, the debate was over their personhood. It's nearly impossible to remove oneself from that debate, and that needs to be considered.

With this in mind, this lecturer could have employed a more considerate example: it's important to show both sides of an issue, but perhaps one side could be represented by a sober, well-reasoned figure rather than a celebrity demagogue who links premarital sex to sexual assault

Still, the initial sanctions from Shepherd's supervisors were completely unwarranted and not at all in keeping with ideals of academic freedom. In fact, disagreement with this teacher's methods would have been a good opportunity for debate and substantive engagement. Laurier's chosen route instead was overblown and authoritarian. Further, comparing Shepherd's "neutrality" on gender identity to "[neutrality] on other objectionable views such as those of Adolf Hitler" is patently ridiculous.

Universities are a platform for productive disagreement, and class material should provoke discussion. University administrations' heavy-handed intercessions and the censoring of educators, like Shepherd, are worrying trends in higher education. We hope Laurier's third-party investigation comes to the same conclusion. 

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