Laurentian University administration violated academic freedom, arbitrator finds

Arbitrator Kevin Burkett has found that Laurentian University administration violated the late Dr. Michael Persinger's rights when it suspended him from teaching in December 2015.

Laurentian University faculty wins important academic freedom battle

Arbitrator finds Laurentian University administration was wrong to suspend the late Dr. Michael Persinger from teaching in December 2015. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC )

The union representing faculty at Laurentian University is calling it an important victory in the battle to protect free speech on campus.

Arbitrator Kevin Burkett has ruled the university was wrong to suspend the late Dr. Michael Persinger from teaching in December 2015.

Persinger was known for developing what he called the "God Helmet," a tool he said could recreate a mystical or religious experience.

But that's not what he was suspended for.

Persinger was removed from teaching a psychology course after the administration received a student complaint. 

He had asked students to sign a letter of understanding that his class may include harsh language and sexist content, and explore complex emotions.

Burkett concluded that the administration violated the late professor's rights. 

Fabrice Colin  is the head of Laurentian University's Faculty Association (LUFA).

"We're quite satisfied with this outcome," said Colin. "Obviously it would have been a real victory if Dr. Persinger had still been with us to enjoy that result," he said.

"It's a big victory because the university administration clearly recognized that when they removed Dr. Persinger from his classroom, it was indeed improper and contrary to the collective agreement," said Colin. "But in doing so they have failed to consider Dr. Persinger's academic freedom," he added. 

Colin defines academic freedom as the right to freely teach and to really engage in research without being restricted by prescribed doctrine or institutional policies.

According to Colin, Persinger was suspended because of the statement of understanding he circulated to the students. 

"The administration disagreed with that practice even though Dr. Persinger was asked by a previous dean almost two decades ago to engage in that practice and to circulate such a statement of understanding," said Colin.

"The former administrators who removed Dr. Persinger from his classroom also knew about that statement of understanding in 2014," he added.

Persinger has been described as a controversial professor. 

Colin provided a quote from Persinger himself as to why he chose that approach: ""One of my techniques is to expose people to all types of different words -- silly words, complex words, emotional words, profane words, because they influence how you make decisions and how you think."

When asked how he thought Persinger would have reacted to the arbitrator's decision, Colin said he would be quite happy. "He was always a strong advocate of academic freedom." 

Persinger died in August 2018.

With files from Casey Stranges