Ottawa·Q&A

Black academic offers his take on storm over use of N-word at U of O

Philippe Frowd, assistant professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, is defending academic freedom, but also urging extreme caution, in the aftermath of a dispute between students and faculty over the suspension of a part-time professor for her use of the N-word.

'I don't think it is never appropriate, but I do think the contexts in which it is are extremely limited'

Philippe Frowd is an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa. (Submitted by Philippe Frowd)

A Black professor is defending academic freedom, but also urging extreme caution, in the aftermath of a dispute between University of Ottawa students and faculty over the suspension of a part-time professor for her use of the N-word.

Part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was suspended Sept. 23 after a student complained she had used the highly offensive word in class as an example of a charged term that a community has reclaimed.

On Friday, her first day back at work, 34 other professors signed a letter of support, defending "critical thinking and academic freedom." Student groups have condemned the letter and have called for a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of the N-word by anyone at the University of Ottawa.

Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) librarians and professors at the university released a statement on Tuesday on an online petition platform, condemning the use of the word in any context, and the ensuing conversation about academic freedom "that is being used to justify the use of this racist slur." 

"We are disappointed at our union, the APUO (Association of University of Ottawa Professors), for framing anti-racist issues as a threat to academic freedom," the statement reads. "We are also appalled that our union has expressed its position on an issue that concerns us directly, without consulting us."

Philippe Frowd, an assistant professor of political studies at the university, did not sign the letter of support defending academic freedom, but instead took to Twitter with his thoughts.

Frowd is an assistant professor with the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He spoke to Ottawa Morning guest host and senior parliamentary reporter Catherine Cullen. Their conversation has been edited for length.

What was your reaction when you read that letter from your 34 colleagues? 

They were getting at a very important issue. On one side, the academic freedom which faculty members have, which gives a great degree of latitude about what's discussed in class, including controversial issues. On the other side, the status of a very, very difficult word and whether we should be using it in the classroom. The way the letter has played out in the public sphere is perhaps slightly different than the reasonably good intentions of the people who signed it. 

Do you think it is ever appropriate to use the N-word in an academic setting, be it by a student or teacher? 

I don't think it is never appropriate, but I do think the contexts in which it is are extremely limited. We have to be very, very careful before we go in that direction. Certainly for me as a Black person, I would find it extremely difficult to raise that in my classroom, especially spoken. I think it might be different if we were reading a text that contained the word that was particularly important. I find it difficult to say never. But I think that we have a certain freedom and latitude in an academic setting to make those choices. I just think those choices should involve a great degree of care.

After students complained about the professor's use of the N-word, she apologized and invited students to discuss the use of the word in class. What do you think of that approach? 

That was a good instinct. We, as a university community, exist to educate students through openness to debate and through clarifying ideas and political positions, especially in arts and social sciences. I think in this particular case the professor probably should have reflected a bit more about the invitation to debate. Given the composition of the class, given Black students' concerns, it may have been interpreted as having to debate something that is perceived as bringing a tremendous amount of indignity. So I can understand why especially racialized students might see this as having to relitigate how difficult a particular word is, when they consider it settled that the word is not OK to say. 

Medical student Ibrahim Mohammad, left, and law student Hannan Mohamud, right, are among those calling for the University of Ottawa to institute a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of the N-word on campus. (CBC)

What do you say to students who feel hurt and degraded by this, and want a zero-tolerance policy? 

It's an understandable sentiment. To have a policy like that would be relatively consistent with the public pronouncements, certainly by the university leadership and by many of my colleagues and from students. The problem is there is a little bit of a tension with the freedom that people have in terms of crafting their courses. I would have a slight concern that zero tolerance would potentially infringe on the latitude that instructors have in their teaching.

Do you have one piece of advice for the university community as it tries to move forward?

The reassertion of academic freedom throughout this is potentially a clunky thing, but I think it's important. I think there's a lot of pressure from outside that sees universities as bastions of cancel culture, but the direction the discussion is going is positive because everyone is using their right to free expression and using it extremely, extremely well. The students have been very eloquent in making clear where they stand on this issue.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning

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