No complaint filed against Laurier teacher severely chastised by supervisors

By , on December 19, 2017


A teaching assistant who was chastised for airing a debate clip featuring a controversial professor was disciplined by her supervisors even though no formal complaint was filed, says the president of Wilfrid Laurier University. (Photo by GatorEG - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)
A teaching assistant who was chastised for airing a debate clip featuring a controversial professor was disciplined by her supervisors even though no formal complaint was filed, says the president of Wilfrid Laurier University. (Photo by GatorEG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A teaching assistant who was chastised for airing a debate clip featuring a controversial professor was disciplined by her supervisors even though no formal complaint was filed, says the president of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Deborah MacLatchy said in a statement Monday an independent fact-finder hired by the school found that no formal complaint or informal concern was ever raised about the class taught by Lindsay Shepherd.

In November, Shepherd was pulled into a meeting and criticized by three Laurier staff members for failing to condemn the views of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who has refused to use gender-neutral pronouns. She aired a clip of a debate featuring Peterson as part of a communications tutorial.

Initially, it was said a student complaint about the class prompted the meeting but MacLatchy said Monday that was not the case.

“There were numerous errors in judgement made in the handling of the meeting with Ms. Lindsay Shepherd, the TA of the tutorial in question,” MacLatchy said in the statement. “In fact, the meeting never should have happened at all. No formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video.”

MacLatchy said the staff members compounded their error by a misapplication of existing university policies.

“Basic guidelines and best practices on how to appropriately execute the roles and responsibilities of staff and faculty were ignored or not understood,” she added, concluding that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Shepherd.

The university apologized to Shepherd last month after she discreetly recorded the meeting with the staff members and released it publicly.

Shepherd said Monday she’s grateful that MacLatchy released some information about the report, which was intended to be confidential. She said was surprised to hear that she was disciplined based on no formal or informal complaint.

“I could have never guessed that there would have been no complaint,” she said. “You can’t make that kind of thing up. It’s so far out there.”

Shepherd said intends to continue her studies and teaching at Laurier in the new year, but said the experience has been challenging.

“There is definitely a divide in how I’m treated,” she said. “Online I have tons and tons of support and I have the support of the general public. On campus at Laurier, I’m treated with suspicion and I’m alienated.”

The saga began when Shepherd led two tutorial groups of students taking a first-year communications course.

As part of a lesson on the complexities of grammar, Shepherd said she was trying to demonstrate that the structure of a language can impact the society in which its spoken in ways people might not anticipate.

To illustrate her point, she said she mentioned that long-standing views on gender had likely been shaped by the gender-specific pronouns that are part of English’s fundamental grammatical structure.

The clip of Peterson debating sexual diversity scholar Nicholas Matte, she said, was meant to demonstrate ways in which the existence of gender-specific pronouns has caused controversy.

In Shepherd’s recordings of her meeting with superiors, which she shared with The Canadian Press, she is heard arguing that she tried to present the situation neutrally in order to foster debate and discussion, and states that she herself does not support Peterson’s views on gender-neutral pronouns.

MacLatchy said Monday the school has addressed the incident with the three staff members involved but would not go into specifics saying it was an individual employment issue.

“It has been made clear to those who were involved in the meeting with Ms. Shepherd that their conduct does not meet the high standards I set for staff and faculty,” she said.

The incident sparked a national debate about academic freedom on Canadian university campuses but MacLatchy defended Laurier in her statement. Staff training will be changed to ensure the issue doesn’t happen again, she said.

“For those who have chosen to use this incident as an indictment of Wilfrid Laurier University or the plight of Canadian universities in general, I say your assertion is unreasonable and unfounded,” she said. “Laurier has a clear commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression.”