In late 2017, I found myself at the centre of a controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I was an M.A. student and teaching assistant (TA) in the Communication Studies department. In the class for which I was serving as TA, I played part of a panel discussion that had aired on Ontario public television. As many readers will know, this material featured University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson making the argument against alternative gender pronoun usage, as well as Sexual Diversity educator Nicholas Matte’s arguments encouraging their use.
Because I chose not to disavow Peterson’s views before airing the clip, I was brought into a subsequent disciplinary meeting. The supervisor for the course in question, Nathan Rambukkana, as well as the coordinator for my M.A. program, Herbert Pimlott (also known, at times, as “Hillary X Plimsoll”), and Gendered Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention manager Adria Joel accused me of breaking the law by airing a clip of Peterson in a classroom, as well as threatening and targeting trans people, thereby creating a toxic environment. All of this is well-known because I taped the whole meeting.
Apparently, “one or more” students had complained about the class in question—though that claim later turned out to be false. Both Rambukkana and Wilfrid Laurier University President Deborah MacLatchy apologized to me, and I was cleared of any wrongdoing after a neutral third-party fact-finding investigation concluded I hadn’t done anything wrong. The investigator also determined that “basic guidelines and best practices on how to appropriately execute the roles and responsibilities of staff and faculty were ignored or not understood.”
Professors Rambukkana and Pimlott disappeared from public view after the semester ended in December, 2017. Rambukkana deleted his personal social media accounts, and Pimlott locked his Twitter account. The posters and décor they had on their office doors were stripped away and the doors were locked for the entirety of 2018. Pimlott was the instructor for my graduate colloquium course, but all of our colloquium meetings for the remainder of that term were cancelled. For the January-April, 2018 semester, he was replaced by another professor, with no explanation offered to students. I also noticed that Pimlott’s name had been removed from the website listing our M.A. program coordinator. I emailed an administrative assistant to ask why Pimlott was no longer the program coordinator, and she told me there had been “departmental changes.” Our graduate class year-end get-together was cancelled.
This was a common pattern from thereon out: No one at Wilfrid Laurier University would give me a straight answer about anything. It was a climate of evasiveness and secrecy.
It wasn’t any different in my classes. In late 2017, right around the time I was first in the news, a professor began the day by acknowledging that it was a “difficult time” on campus, but that she “had a job to do” and was going to carry on with class. Never any mention of my name or any of the other professors involved, nor any discussion of the issues at hand. My colleagues avoided eye contact with me. When the aforementioned professor and I walked by each other in a hallway later that week, I asked (in a cordial manner) why she had begun her class with a vague statement that had effectively chilled our classroom. She replied that some people in my graduate class were very upset about the news story I had sparked, and she asked how I would feel if I were one of them.
In another class, students were told that, effective immediately, we no longer had to write up our weekly reading responses. All of our past posts on the course website were deleted, presumably because the posts were shared amongst the class, and one or more classmates were worried that I might send their weekly responses to a reporter. One classmate emailed me, asking me not to talk about her in the media. (I hadn’t done so, and didn’t know why she thought she was interesting enough to merit mention.)
The following semester, in another one of my courses, our last three classes (which were to consist of graduate student presentations) were nominally “cancelled.” In fact, they went on behind closed doors: The professor changed the program structure, so that students could invite whoever they wanted to attend their own class presentations—which effectively meant that every other student in the class attended everyone else’s presentations, with me being excluded from all of them. This was a way of shunning me—singling me out so that I would miss the opportunity to learn from and discuss the presentations of my colleagues.
After I graduated in October, 2018, I remained curious as to whether Professors Rambukkana and Pimlott would be returning to teach at Laurier once I left. I checked the Communication Studies course offerings for the January-April, 2019 semester. These course listings typically display the days and times of each class, as well as the name of the professor or instructor. Almost all of the Communication Studies courses had an instructor listed. But, curiously, a fourth-year seminar called “Robotic Intimacies” had only a “TBA” listed in the space for the professor’s name.
I knew that this is a course that Rambukkana had taught in the past. And I subsequently found the Robotic Intimacies course blog he set up for the Winter, 2019 semester. Immediately after I posted about this new development on my Twitter page, however, the Robotic Intimacies course blog was closed and deleted. Rambukkana’s own website also had a new post: He was editing a new book about the intersections between robotics and social justice, and was calling for abstracts.
It had been unclear in 2018 whether Rambukkana (an untenured professor) would be returning to his professorship. But now it looked like he was back, and ready to advance his career. Indeed, the Robotic Intimacies course is currently at full capacity, with 20 of 20 spots taken, and even has a waiting list. (As for Pimlott, he has tenure, so I was quite sure all along he’d be back after whatever lengthy—paid or unpaid—leave they’d both been granted.)
Upon graduating from Laurier, I lamented that once I left, there would be no one inside the school keeping an eye on new developments. If universities want to defend professors such as Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott, and gender diversity bureaucrats such as Adria Joel, then we need people in the system who are willing to tell the public what’s going on in our classrooms.
Then again, why would any other student do what I did now that they know the repercussions? They would be risking their degrees, their employment prospects, and their graduate-school futures. They could be left with no academic reference letters, which would undermine their opportunity to study abroad or win a scholarship. If their case gains as much publicity as mine did, they’ll be labelled opportunistic attention-seekers and alt-right provocateurs.
And then there’s the legal aspect: It was recently announced that Rambukkana and Pimlott are filing a third-party claim against me as part of the litigation that began when Peterson sued Rambukkana, Pimlott, Joel and the university for defamation. (I also have filed my own lawsuit against these same parties.) How many students have access to effective legal representation?
Gad Saad of Concordia University in Montreal, a Lebanese-born advocate of free speech and open inquiry, has always made a point of telling his audiences to never sit idly by, but to get engaged and defend the freedoms we have long taken for granted in the Western world. He laments that our schools are full of timid souls who won’t give voice to their personal convictions for fear of professional consequences—even though in the Middle East, where he’s from, activists will risk death or torture. “Academics need to be warriors and stand up for freedom of expression,” he says. “The pursuit of truth is greater than careeris[m].”
I am always appreciative when students send me private messages, detailing how the climate at their own schools stifles them ideologically, and asking for advice. Despite everything I have experienced, my message never varies: Sticking to your personal convictions always will be more rewarding than censoring yourself to get a higher grade or a better job.
Featured image by Andy Ngo