Narrowing the SpectrumBarry W. Bussey March/April 2003
Illustrations by Darren Gygi
One would have thought that the modern university campus would be open to differences of opinion and critical thinking. However, Cynthia Maughan, an English graduate student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), fears that the modern university may not be as open to differences of opinion as she once thought. She is now embroiled in a row with the UBC that has become legal rather than merely academic.
Ms. Maughan, an Anglican, refused to attend a Sunday seminar required by her professor in the course Strategies in Literary Theory. Her refusal was based on the fact that the seminar was held on her Sabbath and that it was held in the home of a classmate who earlier wrote an e-mail to UBC English graduate students that recalls "fondly a time period when Christians were stoned." Ms. Maughan felt it was "religiously repugnant" to be required to attend the seminar under such circumstances.
As a result of not attending the seminar, Ms. Maughan says she faced discrimination from her professor, Lorraine Weir, by not having the same opportunity as the other students in obtaining feedback on her academic essay. The seminar was billed by Prof. Weir as a "trial run" for the final papers in the course. Unfortunately for Ms. Maughan, she was not to have that luxury, as there were no makeup arrangements.
Maughan was troubled by a number of the comments she received from Prof. Weir on her assignments. On one such assignment Prof. Weir noted that her "impression is that in the end the seminar challenged everything you hold dear—a situation that makes systematic inquiry very difficult." Matters became difficult indeed.
So Ms. Maughan appealed her grade, based on a UBC policy protecting from academic penalty those students who observe a holy day. A lower tribunal of two professors reviewed the matter. In denying her appeal, they identified other appeal bodies to Ms. Maughan, but they "strongly recommended" that she not appeal to the UBC Senate. Ms. Maughan did not bother to accept the advice and appealed anyway.
As this nasty bit of business eventually found its way to the UBC Senate, Prof. Weir allegedly went to some length to discredit Ms. Maughan by seeking letters from another student and other professors at UBC. Those disparaging letters suggested that Ms. Maughan was, among other things, "unstable," and that her complaints against Prof. Weir amounted to "threats and terrorism."
The UBC Senate committee was troubled with what they heard. Though they denied the appeal of Ms. Maughan's grade on technical grounds, they were not pleased with what was happening. Unanimously they held that Prof. Weir had "been neglectful of her teaching duties" in failing to
provide Ms. Maughan an alternative feedback in lieu of attending the Sunday seminar. The Department of English, they said, had "mounted an irrelevant attack upon [Ms. Maughan's] character for mental and emotional stability and for religious tolerance." They did not stop there—in their view the conduct of the English Department was inexcusable; it had "embarrassed the university, and descended well beneath the current standards of Charter values."
Ms. Maughan has since filed a statement of claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia seeking damages for the discriminatory treatment she alleges to have suffered from Prof. Weir and others at UBC. Her legal counsel, Gerry Chipeur, is a constitutional lawyer based out of Calgary, Alberta. Mr. Chipeur alleges that Prof. Weir discriminated against Ms. Maughan because she refused to accept Prof. Weir's "belief that religion and European culture are responsible for many of the evils within society."1 In Prof. Weir's brief to the UBC Senate she noted that Ms. Maughan's academic views were a "recognition of one's own colonial heritage and implication in a tragic history."2
No stranger to controversy, Prof. Weir gained notoriety in Canada when testifying in the trial of child pornographer John Robin Sharpe, whose writings the court said were "morally repugnant." Nevertheless, the court accepted Prof. Weir's analysis that Sharpe's writings constituted "art." Prof. Weir is of the view that pornography is an expression of a society. "It's the world that's the problem, not the representations of the world," she says. "The argument for a utopia is an old one. 'Burn the bad books to make the people better.' The dualistic notion of our patriarchal violent society versus the peaceful, nonviolent utopia needs to be deconstructed in practical terms, so that we recognize a spectrum, allow a spectrum of views and lifestyles."3
According to newspaper accounts, the current head of the UBC English Department recognizes the importance of a broad spectrum on campus. While admitting to members of the department using inappropriate language with Ms. Maughan, Prof. Gernot Wieland said the incident has "sensitized us" and "made us more aware that there are certain limits and that we have to be a little more careful in our language." He denied there being a pattern of discrimination against Ms. Maughan, and concluded, "We have a large intercultural population here, so yes, we are very sensitive to that."4
Whatever the outcome of Ms. Maughan's lawsuit, it will surely assist the University of British Columbia in becoming all the more sensitive to the importance of allowing—in the words of Prof. Weir— "a spectrum of views and lifestyles," albeit not exactly in the same way she originally intended.
Barry W. Bussey holds degrees in theology, law, and political science. He writes from Toronto, Canada.
1 Fancine Dube, "Christian 'Exposed to Contempt' Lawsuit Accuses UBC Professors of Discrimination Based on religion," National Post, Oct. 24, 2002, online edition at www.nationalpost.com.
2 Statement of claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Cynthia Maughan and The University of British Columbia, Lorraine Weir, Susanna Egan, Anne Scott, Judy Segal.
3 Morgan Reid, "Little Sister's Under the Watchful Eye of Big Brother," The Peak, Feb. 6, 1995. http://www.peak.sfu.ca/ the-peak/95-1/issue5/lilsis.html.
Article Author: Barry W. Bussey
Barry W. Bussey is vice-president of Legal Affairs at the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, Elmira, Ontario, Canada.