Getting the York University accommodation story right

You’ve probably already heard this story by now, but a student taking an online course at York University in Toronto requested to be excused from a group project because his religious beliefs did not allow him to work with women. His professor refused, and, luckily, the student acquiesced and did the project anyway. The incident has stirred up discussion about religious accommodation in Canada again.

The logo for York University.

York University

The incident itself unfolded – in prototypical Canadian fashion – rather politely. The student made a polite request to be excused from the rules – stating that the whole reason he chose an online course was to avoid the problem – the professor politely declined the request, and the student shrugged and went ahead and complied with the rules. No fuss, no muss. The student even wrote to thank Professor Grayson for considering his request. The reason the story has hit the headlines is because the professor, J. Paul Grayson – unsure of what he was supposed to do in this kind of situation – asked the dean’s office and the university’s Centre for Human Rights for guidance. Their definitive answers came way too late – the professor had already refused the request and the assignment was long since done – but even in their first responses they were all unequivocally clear that Grayson should accommodate the request. In fact, Grayson could even be fired because he refused it (though that seems unlikely, given the circumstances).

Religious accommodation is already a hot topic among Canadian atheists, humanists, and freethinkers, because of the Québec “Charter of Values” flap. (Sorry I can’t link to any articles on it – they’re all on Canadian Atheist, which is still down.) So it’s no surprise that this is fanning the flames once more.

It’s hard for freethinkers not to side with Grayson here – personally, I find myself recoiling at the suggestion of allowing this kind of request. But let’s be cautious about making this guy out to be a hero. First of all, he’s a bit of a dick. More relevant, though, is the fact that the dean’s office told him three times that he should comply with such requests, and three times he refused. For me, that is the threshold where the guy crosses from “bold defender of humanistic values” into “stubborn jerk”. Sure, in this case his stubbornness was in line with humanistic values, but we wouldn’t be so happy about a prof flipping off the orders of the dean’s office if the case were that the dean’s office was ordering him to stop teaching creationism or something like that – or to stop segregating the students by gender.

Frankly, if Grayson objected to the university’s rules about accommodation, he should have taken that up with the administration; he shouldn’t have dragged students into the fight by pooh-poohing the university’s rules and enforcing his own values. That’s just wrong, and let’s be honest enough as freethinkers to call it what it is. The first time he got word from the dean about the university’s policy, he should have accommodated the student’s request. He could have taken up issue with the policy outside the classroom, later.

Which he is doing, of course. When he got the first responses from the dean’s office that he had to accommodate, he gathered his department together in support. On , they passed a resolution, stating:

Whereas it is recognized that York recognizes diversity, be it resolved that academic accommodations for students will not be made if they contribute to material or symbolic marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants.

(Grayson also apparently asked another sociology class what they thought about the idea, which is less cool, but as I understand it he specifically phrased it to sound like a hypothetical question. Still, I’m not sure that was a smart move.)

So what is the right way to handle this kind of situation? To put it bluntly, professors don’t really have a lot of options. By law they have to accommodate unless this would cause undue hardship because of cost, or health and safety reasons. There is no sane argument that letting this guy off from his group work or putting together an all-guy group for him would cause Grayson or the university undue hardship or cost, or that there would be any health and safety reasons. Grayson actually broke the law, and he’s lucky that it doesn’t seem likely that there will be a complaint against him, or any other action taken. Pigheadedness – even when your cause is just – does not put you above the law, and if you wish to practice civil disobedience, fine… but part of civil disobedience means accepting the consequences. (And, frankly, I’m not cool with using your students as pawns in an act of civil disobedience.)

In other words, both the dean and the Centre for Human Rights are right in this case, and Professor Grayson is wrong. The student was also “right”, in the sense that he had the right to make the request, even if it was an odious and idiotic request.

But should the request have been accommodated? That’s actually a much harder question than most people seem to realize. Look at it from the student’s perspective: he has a right to an education, and he took all the right steps to make sure he could get one without interacting with women – it was an online course. It would have worked swimmingly, except Grayson had a group project requirement that he wouldn’t let the student out of even though he let other students out of it – there was another student taking the course who was abroad, and so couldn’t do the group work. Maybe a request like his should be accommodated, however it annoys us. Perhaps I’ll consider that in a future post. I have to admit that I’m morbidly curious as to how the student would take the course if the professor had not be Paul Grayson, but rather Pauline Grayson.

That’s not the question I’m interested in here. That’s a debate that we have to have, sure, but we can’t have it until we pull our heads out of our asses.

You see, the problem isn’t the policy of York University. This is something that so many atheist, humanist, and freethinker writers don’t seem to grok. Martin Singer – the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies – and Noël Badiou – Director at York University’s Centre for Human Rights are the wrong targets for our letter-writing campaigns and petitions; you’re just wasting your time harassing them. They can’t change their policy. If they did, they would be in violation of Ontario’s law.

The problem is Ontario’s law.

And the people who can really do something about this problem are all strategically and opportunistically encouraging the ire against the York administration, while getting away with doing nothing to fix it. Just look at the CBC article I linked to, and see how the politicians are playing this up. In fairness, those are all federal MPs, and this is an Ontario problem, but still… this is an Ontario problem, not a York University one. All you atheist, humanist, and freethinker writers who are dumping on York’s administration are chumps, being suckered by the savvy distraction play the politicians are making.

As much as this “brave little professor faces off against a stupid administration who want to grant a student’s idiotic request” narrative may play in the blogs, it’s complete bullshit. The dean was right and has the law on his side, the prof was wrong and was just being a stubborn dick, and the student probably has every right to get an education without ever interacting with a woman (he certainly does legally, and whether he does morally is a question I’ll leave open for now). In fact, as has already been pointed out, there was another student in the same class who did just that because ze was taking the online course from abroad, so ze couldn’t possibly do the group work, yet was accommodated. Grayson’s duty to accommodate was not impossible, or even difficult – it was just against his personal ideology, and since when is it acceptable for people to let their personal ideology excuse them from doing their job duties, hm?

And this silly fixation with that bullshit narrative is stopping us from identifying the real problem, and taking real steps to fix it. We won’t gain anything by letter-fucking Martin Singer or Noël Badiou except two more burned out educators. We need to put this on the laps of Ontario’s politicians. We need to open debate on the accommodation clauses in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Maybe they’re too broad. Why is it okay to refuse to accommodate if it costs too much… but not if it causes the dehumanization and marginalization of women? Where are our motherfucking priorities, man? We need to clarify exactly what kinds of religious accommodation are acceptable, and what kinds are not. Maybe we need to have it state that accommodation requests must only be respected if such accommodation does not require discriminating against others on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, yadda yadda (you know, what the Code already says about discrimination). I dunno how it might be properly worded – I’m not a lawyer.

Simplifying this issue to the plot of a cartoon – with plucky heroes and villainous organizations – is not going to solve anything. Neither will ignoring the rights of the student to get an education even if he doesn’t want to interact with women. And certainly flooding the inboxes of helpless university administrators who are just doing what they have to do – following the law – won’t help. Let’s use reason and observation to see what the real problem here is and how to solve it. Let’s elevate the discussion, and hang the responsibility where it really lies – Ontario lawmakers.

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Getting the York University accommodation story right by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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