Mark Jones, Open Letter: Response to Principal Woolf re Apology to Michael Mason (27 November 2012)

Dear Colleagues:

An update on the letter of apology for Professor Michael Mason:

It was published in the Globe & Mail on 19 November with a column by James Bradshaw.  The National Post also reported it on 19 November, and the Kingston Whig-Standard on the 20th.  It is now posted on Real Academic Planning with updated signatures.  Faculty, student, and alumni signatures are now over 190 and are still being accepted on ipetitions.  The National Post article reported Prof. Mason’s response to the letter:  “Reached Monday, Mr. Mason was surprised to learn about the letter of support. ‘I don’t want to over-dramatize it but it’s been a hard year for me,’ he said. ‘This sort of brightens my day.'”

Principal Woolf has responded to the Open Letter twice—in the Globe on 19 November and in an email Letter to Faculty on the 22nd.  In neither statement does he consider offering an apology.  His first statement repeats the Administration’s defence that CAUT lacks “jurisdiction.”  As both the Canadian press and Queen’s Administration have recognized, however, the CAUT Report’s legitimacy stands or falls on its credibility and methodology.  The Principal himself goes on to protest that the CAUT “findings are incomplete, inaccurate, and based on a portion of the facts.”

How or where the CAUT Report is “inaccurate” Principal Woolf does not explain. And every history that has ever been written is “incomplete” and “based on a portion of the facts.” Any incompleteness in this case is, moreover, a function of the Administration’s own refusal to cooperate with the CAUT investigators.  If the Administration wishes now to insinuate that there is another story, it should outline its factual basis.

Here the Principal seeks cover in confidentiality:  “it is not appropriate to discuss all of the facts of this case in a public forum.”  His statement of Nov. 22 adds that “we must take care not to violate any privacy or confidentiality concerns.”  It is not clear whose, if anyone’s, privacy interests are at risk.  If it concerns TAs or students who voiced concerns or complaints, the Administration can and should outline the facts of such allegations without using names.

The Principal’s central claim, that “this is fundamentally not about academic freedom,” is not credible.  The Principal himself retreats from it slightly in his Nov. 22 statement, which says “This matter is about much more than academic freedom.”  The Collective Agreement’s Article 14 on Academic Freedom provides that Members’ rights to academic freedom “include the freedom […] to […] transmit knowledge […] through […] teaching […] without limitation or constriction by institutional censorship” (14.1.b).  Professor Mason was accused of using “racist and sexist” language, but there are reasonable doubts whether either the complainants or the Administrators involved understood the crucial distinction between “using” and quoting, and whether some of Prof. Mason’s remarks had not been taken out of context.  There had been no formal investigation or finding on these allegations when his classes of October 28 and November 2, 2011, were cancelled by the Vice-Principal for Faculty Relations (CAUT Report, p. 5).  By the Administration’s own admission there has been no investigation to date, save that of CAUT.  And the CAUT Report finds violations of procedural fairness, of substantive fairness, and of academic freedom.  At the very minimum this indicates a need for thoughtful response and open investigation; to deny that the Mason case is even “about academic freedom” is a reaction unworthy of responsible Administration.

What this is about, the Principal contends, is student safety.  His professed concern for safety is, however, both overblown and misdirected.  Neither of the Principal’s statements say who or what the threat to student safety might have been in this case.  In his contexts these claims amount to irresponsible innuendo, for there is practically only one way to apply them, and that is against Prof. Mason.

Consider first the Nov. 19 statement:  “[T]his is fundamentally not about academic freedom.  It is about behaviour in the classroom that was reported to have created a hostile and unsafe learning environment for students.”  The closest thing to an account of an “unsafe learning environment” in any of the relevant public records is this, from the CAUT Report, p. 5:

On Wednesday, October 26, 2011, Professor Mason met with his class and, as requested in Professor Carson’s letter, he raised the issue of the complaints and asked that if they thought he had made inappropriate comments that they should raise the matter with him. [footnote: “Interview with Professor Mason January 16, 2012]  A heated discussion ensued among students in which several students who raised objections to Professor Mason’s use of irony were booed and about a half a dozen walked out of the class.

The danger at issue here is a matter of students booing other students.  This may not be the best mode of conduct for classroom “discussion”–but “unsafe”?  Anyone who thinks so will think it “unsafe” to attend peewee hockey tournaments.  Nor is this so clearly the fault of the instructor that it can be blamed, openly or by insinuation, on Prof. Mason. Those booing were apparently other students, and the occasion was Prof. Mason’s compliance with an Administrative directive.  If this is indeed the occasion to which the Principal alludes, the phrase “it is about behaviour in the classroom” makes a sly omission; it was about student behaviour in the classroom.

Second, the statement from Nov. 22:

…I believe in the protection of academic freedom. I also believe, however, that students and teaching assistants should be able to study and work in a safe environment in which they may raise concerns without fear of hostility and retaliation. This matter is about much more than academic freedom, and I hope you will take that into account when reflecting on the issues at hand.

In context, this implies that Prof. Mason was guilty of “hostility and retaliation” toward those who complained.  It is pure innuendo.  So let us be clear:  there is nothing in the public record to indicate that Prof. Mason acted with hostility or threatened retaliation towards students or TAs.  He is in fact a celebrated teacher with a long record of extraordinary teaching evaluations.  These shadowy imputations are perfectly groundless.

Queen’s Administration does not promote “safe environment” at all with such language. Indeed, such treatment creates fear:  fear of open discussion in the classroom, fear of addressing sensitive issues.  Playing the “safety” card merely diverts attention from the Administration’s own violation of academic freedom by deepening its wrongs to Prof. Mason.  The Administration’s own violation of academic freedom is well documented in the CAUT Report.  If it has a real defense against this documentation, or other facts that alter the Report’s conclusions, let us please see them.  But please let us not add further insult to injury in the pretense that this case has nothing to do with academic freedom.  So long as our Administration continues to respond with evasion and further injury, it damages academic freedom, academic reputation, and the learning environment for all of us.

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2 Responses to Mark Jones, Open Letter: Response to Principal Woolf re Apology to Michael Mason (27 November 2012)

  1. Anon. assistant professor says:

    The intellectual dishonesty of the principal’s letter is shameful. It is very clearly another in a long series of missteps that should disqualify him from a second term. Some secure senior faculty need to get working on this. I was very worried when Woolf’s e-mail arrived in my inbox soon after I signed the petition.

  2. Anonymous Assistant Prof #2 says:

    I suspect that there is far more to this story then CAUT will let on, and the Administration clearly has legal responsibilities to consider (unlike CAUT). Until a neutral third party “arbitrator” investigates, I personally do not believe a word CAUT says. The administration has pretty much said nothing, at this point. When further details emerge (as the Principal suggests they will as this proceeds through legal channels), I really hope that QUFA (who I normally support) doesn’t come out of this with egg on their face. For example, this letter by Mark Jones is, in my view, unprofessional rhetoric, simply fuelled by emotion. This surely doesn’t help Queen’s (but the media sure loves it). I think QUFA needs to show some patience.

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