October 22, 2020

In the wake of a recent controversy surrounding the use of the N-word in a classroom at a partner institution, I have been asked by some members of our community to share my thoughts on the matter. It would be inappropriate to comment on any of the specifics of the case in question, but there is value in reflecting on the discussion that has flowed from it.

Our society is changing – adapting to new technological, geopolitical, social and environmental realities – and so are universities. The current public health crisis and the additional pressures it imposes on all of us are arguably exacerbating some of these tensions. Change is hard. It is to be expected that, from time to time, we enter into debate on what needs to change and what needs to stay the same, and into real or perceived “conflicts of rights.” Universities, by definition, are the institutions depended upon to carefully consider such matters, and we must not shy away from that crucial responsibility.

I certainly concur with the caucus of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) Professors and Librarians at the University of Ottawa, when they state that: “Black students deserve to go to university without having to hear derogatory terms about their communities or having the use of terms that dehumanize them being put up for a class debate.” Concerns have been raised about academic freedom, but I do not see how being asked to refrain from using a racial slur, arguably the most offensive word in the English language, undermines this fundamental value. As Prof. Philippe Frowd argues in a recent piece, the contexts in which it would be appropriate to use such a word are extremely limited.

This specific controversy is symptomatic of the broader and more complex issue of how to live together peacefully, meaningfully and productively in a diverse, fast-changing and over-connected world. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the awful death of Joyce Echaquan and other recent race-based tragedies, we must commit to listen, to talk and to understand each other. There is a natural temptation to want to break down difficult and challenging matters into simpler propositions, but in doing so, context is often lost. Without context, meaning itself is eroded and mutual understanding becomes impossible.

Carleton is a diverse community that strives for inclusion. We are currently holding our second annual Inclusion Week, featuring a number of events with the objective of reflecting and taking action on issues of equity and anti-racism. We are also in the process of developing an institutional EDI action plan designed to lead to long-lasting, positive change in our community. We recognize that these can be difficult conversations that must be based on understanding, respect and shared learning. Meaningful change will take time and effort, but thoughtful scholarship, respectful conversations and empathy will light the way.

Benoit-Antoine Bacon
President and Vice-Chancellor