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Margin Notes

Rights, wrongs and a rush to judgment

A closer look at York University’s religious accommodation controversy.


The controversy over a York University student’s request for special accommodation for religious reasons created a bit of a media sh*tstorm this week (I’ve included a list of related links at the end of this post, for those who wish to read further). University Affairs was the first media outlet contacted with a request to write about the story and was also the first to publish an account of it. I wanted to explore our reasons for doing so, how we handled it, and what followed.

First, a brief recap of the main details: a York sociology professor, Paul Grayson, was approached last fall by a student who requested, for religious reasons, that he be excused from a required group assignment so that he wouldn’t have to publicly interact with female students. Dr. Grayson did not wish to grant the accommodation, as he felt doing so would give tacit support to a negative view of women. But because he felt it was an issue of principle that needed an institutional response, he forwarded the request to both the dean of arts and the university’s human rights office. Both replied, essentially, that Dr. Grayson should comply with the student’s request. It is unclear whether the student was aware of this. In any event, before the administration weighed in, the student said that he would respect the professor’s decision and did participate in the assignment.

Problem solved, no? Obviously not to Dr. Grayson’s satisfaction, who felt that the main issue – whether the student’s request was reasonable – had been left unresolved. It was at this point, in early December, that Dr. Grayson contacted the editor of University Affairs, Peggy Berkowitz, in the hope that we could cover the issue in some way. She agreed with Dr. Grayson that it was a very interesting dilemma that deserved to be debated. However, it is not our custom to publish exposés that are potentially embarrassing to a university or damaging to its reputation (for reasons that we can discuss at some other time).

After a discussion amongst the University Affairs’ editorial team, we proposed to Dr. Grayson that we would publish an account of his story, but without naming him or the university. We felt that the institution involved was not crucial to a discussion of the key issues of religious accommodation and competing rights. He acceded. Since by this point it was the week before Christmas, we decided to wait until after the holiday break to publish an account of the story, written by Ms. Berkowitz, based on the material Dr. Grayson provided us.

I wondered how long the identity of Dr. Grayson and the university would remain concealed. In the meantime, Dr. Grayson approached a Globe and Mail reporter about the story. Not surprisingly, the newspaper was keen to report on it and had a story online only hours after ours was published, naming the professor and the university. The story was quickly picked up by the Toronto Star, the National Post, CBC News, Le Devoir and other outlets. The story even made it as far as Le Figaro in France.

That first wave of reporting was followed by a larger wave of mainly negative commentary and opinion, radio talk show discussions, online chats, and so on. In much of this rush to judgment, the university has been condemned and pilloried. On the whole, I have found the reactions somewhat disappointing and predictable. There have been incantations against Islam (the religion of the student was never disclosed), multiculturalism, “un-Canadian” values, gutless administrators and more. Regrettably, various politicians felt the need to chime in. The online comments by readers, furthermore, were often wildly uninformed, bigoted, ignorant and embarrassing.

I do wish to point out with some pride, however, that the comments from University Affairs readers have been almost entirely respectful and thoughtful, usually signed with their actual names, and have enriched rather than muddied the discussion. I think you’ll find, as well, that they are not nearly as eager to automatically condemn the university. In fact, several suggest the university appeared to act correctly based on the Ontario Human Rights Code and the work of the Ontario Human Rights Commission – an opinion shared by some legal experts contacted by reporters (an unnamed spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities also supported York’s handling of the issue). I strongly encourage you to check out our comments section and decide for yourself.

A selection of related links:

The initial reporting:
Religious accommodation or ‘accessory to sexism’? York student’s case stirs debate (Globe and Mail)
York U student’s refusal to work with women sparks rights debate (Toronto Star)
York University professor who refused student’s request to be separated from female classmates broke ‘obligation to accommodate’: officials (National Post)
York University student’s request not to work with women stirs controversy (CBC News)

Commentary and follow up:
York professor right to deny religious request (Maclean’s On Campus)
The fear of offending is sapping universities of common sense (Globe and Mail)
Rights crusaders run amok at York (National Post)
Unreasonable accommodation (Ottawa Citizen)
York professor was right to deny student’s request to work apart from women (Toronto Star)
Choose the Canadian way (Calgary Herald)
York University student’s request not to work with women poses dilemma (Toronto Star)
What York University forgot: Gender equality is not negotiable (Globe and Mail)
MacKay joins critics of York’s religious-accommodation decision  (Globe and Mail)

From York University:
Statement from Rhonda Lenton, provost and vice-president academic

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Charles / January 13, 2014 at 13:40

    “it is not our custom to publish exposés that are potentially embarrassing to a university or damaging to its reputation”

    Very disappointing. I guess this is why we need journalism.

  2. Patricia / January 16, 2014 at 15:20

    What keeps getting lost in this whole discussion is that the original decision to accommodate, in this case, was based on the premise that students should not be compelled to come on campus to do an assignment for an online course. The accommodation was about not being required to be on campus and not about not being in a group with female students. The interview the York VPA gave to CBC radio made this very clear. The question of having to meet with female students was NOT part of the decision.

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