Two days after York University was scandalized by news that it had backed a student’s request to be kept from his female classmates for religious reasons, the dean responsible informed colleagues that he had no other choice.
“[I wish] I had had another choice, but neither I, nor those who advised me, believe that I did,” reads a Friday letter by Martin Singer, dean of the university’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.
In October, Mr. Singer ordered sociology professor J. Paul Grayson to accommodate the request of a student to be excused from a group assignment due to the student’s “firm religious beliefs” that women and men should not intermingle.
“I am writing as Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies to require that you respect the Faculty’s legal obligation to accommodate the religious practice of [the student],” wrote Mr. Singer in a confidential October 18 letter to Mr. Grayson.
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Instead, the professor ignored the Dean’s order and, last week, took the issue to the media.
As Mr. Grayson wrote in an October letter to the university’s president, “I do not believe that we want to be known as a university in which the rights of female students can be compromised by religious concerns.”
The student, meanwhile, respected the professor’s decision and attended the group sessions without complaint.
Last week, Mr. Grayson confirmed that the Dean’s order remained outstanding.
In Friday’s letter, leaked to the National Post, Mr. Singer expressed his “sincere regret” at the issue, but maintained that since the measure would not have had a “substantial impact” on the other students in the course — which was online — he was bound by the Ontario Human Rights Code to have the request fulfilled.
“I am dismayed that the decision to accommodate has been characterized as an endorsement of the student’s belief system, and as a betrayal of York’s decades long efforts toward gender equity,” he wrote.
As outlined in the two-page letter, at the crux of the Dean’s controversial decision was the fact that Mr. Grayson had already allowed another student in the online course to make alternative arrangements for the group assignment.
The student lived outside the country and could not physically meet with other students. Nevertheless, since that student had apparently skipped the group assignment without having a “substantial impact” on the other students, Mr. Singer concluded that “the sole grounds for different treatment was the professor’s disapproval of the student’s beliefs.”
He added that “disapproval of belief is precisely the way that discrimination on grounds of creed is defined.”
In a weekend response to the Dean’s letter, Mr. Grayson held that a “geographical” limitation is entirely different than a “preference” to not work around women. “The situations are not at all parallel,” he wrote.
The professor then noted an episode — in the same class — in which he gave an extension to a student whose parent had died, but denied an extension to a student who had simply been late returning from a vacation.
“Consistent with the Dean’s logic, because I gave an extension to the first student, I should also have given one to the second,” wrote Mr. Grayson.
The sociology professer also asserted he had gathered “empirical evidence” to refute the Dean’s claim that acceding to the student’s request would not have had an impact on the women in the class.
Last fall, Mr. Grayson said he gave a survey to one of his other sociology courses in order to gauge the class’ reaction to a hypothetical case of gender segregation on religious grounds.
When the female students reacted with almost uniform outrage, he concluded that “were the male to be granted a substitute assignment there would be ‘collateral damage’ among female students.”
While the Dean’s decision has provoked a storm of public outrage in the last week — including condemnations from NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Justice Minister Peter MacKay — it continues to have the wide-ranging approval of York University brass.
According to the Dean’s letter, his decision had the support of York’s Centre for Human Rights, university provost Rhonda Lenton, the Office of the University Counsel and the Office of Faculty Relations.
Notably, a Thursday statement by the provost — the first issued in the wake of Mr. Grayson’s revelations — expressed support for the Dean’s position, while also reiterating the university’s commitment to “gender equity, inclusivity and diversity.”
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