An Acadia University professor said a petition calling for him to be removed from teaching classes at the school is "rather surreal and absurd."
Rick Mehta — who has taught psychology at Acadia for 14 years — is under fire for his social media posts about Sen. Lynn Beyak and residential schools. But Mehta said he's simply practising free speech.
"You just have to laugh. The whole situation just seems just rather bizarre, because I just put out a tweet … I wasn't expecting any consequences," said Mehta.
The controversy started after Mehta tweeted at federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who had removed Beyak from the party's parliamentary caucus.
Beyak was kicked out after refusing to remove "racist" comments found in letters posted to her Senate website. The senator had posted roughly 100 letters in support of her earlier defence of Canada's residential schools, where some 6,000 Indigenous children died from malnutrition and disease.
. @AndrewScheer You claim to support free speech, yet you remove Senator Beyak from your caucus. Where is the evidence of racism? Are you saying that the Aboriginal people should have a protected status and therefore can't be criticized? Bad move re: race relations.— @RickRMehta
On Jan. 5, Mehta tweeted to Scheer: "You claim to support free speech, yet you remove Senator Beyak from your caucus. Where is the evidence of racism? Are you saying that the Aboriginal people should have a protected status and therefore can't be criticized? Bad move re: race relations."
"I was supporting Sen. Beyak, not her positions — but just her right to put letters on a website and to express her views," said Mehta.
Mehta has also tweeted and retweeted a number of posts slamming what he calls political correctness.
Mehta said he tries to keep his opinions out of the classroom, but said more and more professors at university are liberal "so the consequence of that is that it limits them [to] what kinds of questions are asked, the approaches that are taken, how data is interpreted.
"My job is to teach [students] how to think, not what to think. So if there's a dominant narrative on campus, then the way I see my role as a professor is to provide different perspectives so students can decide for themselves what they think is the truth," said Mehta.
'He has a position of power'
Jessica Durling, a human rights activist in Halifax, is one of three people behind the petition to have Mehta removed from his job. As of midday Monday, just over 500 people had signed the petition on change.org.
"He has a position of power at Acadia, and yet chooses to continuously belittle and oppose marginalized groups using his influence as a teacher and being put on a pedestal as somebody who students can look up to," said Durling. "Marginalized people of Nova Scotia just don't feel comfortable with that."
Durling said she first heard about Mehta a week ago. She said she saw one of her contacts on Twitter engaging with him. Although she's not an Acadia student, Durling said she has talked to people who have taken his classes. She said they were "downright surprised" to hear about his views.
"There can't be a man — who thinks marginalized groups are less, who thinks residential schools did good — in a position of power teaching students and teaching lectures being put on a pedestal," said Durling.
'We encourage academic freedom'
If Mehta isn't fired, Durling said it would not reflect well for the university.
Mehta said as of Sunday, he had not heard anything from school officials. "I think it would just be bad publicity if they were to just give in to a petition," he said.
A counter-petition also exists on change.org, calling for "support" for Mehta; it has been signed by about 230 people.
Scott Roberts, director of communications at Acadia University, said he was not aware of any formal petition calling for Mehta's removal being brought to the school but he said he was aware what was being said about him online.
There have been no formal complaints made against Mehta, he said.
"We encourage academic freedom, we encourage free speech but we also absolutely require and respect the responsibilities that come along with that," said Roberts. "We're well aware of the debate, we're well aware of what's going on but we don't have anything at this point in time that we can respond to."