An University of Ottawa professor used the N-word in class, and 34 colleagues came to her defence in a letter. Photo by RobCA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
More than 30 University of Ottawa professors have publicly defended a colleague who used the N-word in class, saying universities are a place for debate that should protect “critical thinking and academic freedom.”
Part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval said the N-word last month during a discussion on the reappropriation of words by marginalized communities. She later apologized and asked her students to think about how the word is used to discuss it again in their next class. Lieutenant-Duval was temporarily suspended and her students were given the option of transferring out of her class.
But in a letter written in French, 34 University of Ottawa professors have come out in support of Lieutenant-Duval since her suspension, saying universities are a place “to explore the realities of history, notably the history of ideas, many of which will conflict with current popular opinion.”
Black students have denounced the incident, and said it wasn’t the first time anti-Black slurs have been used at the university in Canada’s capital.
“Students are asking that the N-word not be pronounced,” said Babacar Faye, president of the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU).
“The word has been used to demean and repress people for centuries. There is no other use of the word.”
The incident “completely ignores” the wider context at the school, Faye, 21, told VICE News. “Black students especially have been repeatedly victimized and affected by instances of racism on campus,” Faye said.
In an open letter on Sunday, the UOSU also pointed to a separate incident in which students in the Faculty of Law made multiple complaints after racist remarks were made during a Zoom class while the professor was absent.
But Lieutenant-Duval’s case has garnered the most attention, sparking a heated debate in the province of Quebec after La Presse newspaper columnist Isabelle Hachey took up the professor’s cause, accusing the university of trampling on academic freedom.
Hachey compared the treatment of the professor to a “fatwa” and said “disturbing similarities” exist between the case and the recent decapitation of a teacher in France after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed to his students.
Quebec’s deputy premier, Genevieve Guilbault, said she was “troubled” to see the university “throw this professor over to aggressive activists who speak violently against her and Francophones.”
An open letter published in Le Devoir newspaper and signed by nearly 600 university and college professors echoed that this week, saying that by suspending Lieutenant-Duval, the University of Ottawa was cracking down on freedom of thought.
But those arguments ring hollow to many Black students at the university.
“I don’t understand the justification of academic freedom,” said Saada Hussen, a 22-year-old, second-year medical student and a member of the Black Medical Student Association at the University of Ottawa.
“To us, it just seems like one large slap in the face to the Black