News / Opinion

Interview: York’s Paul Grayson on human rights and responsibility

Photo by Andrevruas (2013) via Wikimedia Commons 

Chandra Kavanagh 

For those of you who haven’t heard York University’s front-page news, let’s recap: Tenured York professor Dr. Paul Grayson received a request from a student to be excused from mandatory coursework for his online sociology course because it included group work in the company of women. Dr. Grayson refused the request on the grounds that it infringed upon the human rights of women. York University overturned his decision, and asked Grayson to make accommodations for the student. This incident has lead to a flurry of discussion regarding the intersection between religious rights and the rights of women.

In the following interview, Dr. Grayson shares his thoughts about the university’s decision and the public reaction:

What was it that prompted you to refuse the student’s request, initially?

I’ve been around for a while and I know the kind of gains – one step at a time – that females have made over the past half-century. And, if you go back let’s say 50 years, you know that maybe you had 15 to 20 per cent of students in universities were women. Women were never talked about, except in disciplines like English, where you studied English novelists and so on. But women were not really talked about in the social sciences. All the research was based on men and all the generalizations were based on the studies of men.

Times have changed incredibly and now the majority of students at our university are females. And then something like this comes along that just sets things back. And in fact, this would not have happened 50 years ago. There’s no way that anybody would have entertained a request such as this.

[Do] you agree with York University’s decision, and why or why not?

Well, I totally disagree and the reason is that it is a violation of human rights and it is prejudicial towards females. As one of the hundreds of people who have written to me pointed out, this is all a part of the process; that you marginalize a little bit here, marginalize a little bit there, and you end up in a situation potentially in which you have total marginalization.

Do you think that educators are responsible, when they see a human rights issue, to take action, even against their own institutions?

Oh, most definitely. At York at least, and likely in other universities we have a union and a collective agreement; one of the provisions of the collective agreement is that you’re free to criticize the administration. I would have done it anyway because it’s wrong. And if I had gone along with what was proposed, I could have been justifiably crucified in the same way that [they’re] being crucified, because I would have been a party to [it].

Do you think that the voices of professors have been given adequate weight when it comes to university policy?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. I mean, when it comes to academic programs, yeah. The senate is the body that is responsible, ultimately, for academic decisions in the university and that is pretty sacrosanct. There’s no interference from anywhere with that kind of function. But when it gets to things like making decisions, as with the case here, I was incredulous that I was sort of sidelined, because I was the one who brought it to the attention of the administration. I said, “Look, this is crazy, but I want a principled statement that I can go to the student with, in which it’s very, very clear that there are core values at York and this is inconsistent with those core values.”

And then it was as though this bureaucratic machine kicked in that turns out the same kind of meat product no matter what goes in the front end, and my concerns were completely sidelined. In fact, I get the impression from some of the wording of some of the emails that I received, that I was regarded as the problem, that really, “It’s only Grayson, stirring up the shit.”

Can you tell me about [the reaction from the public] what has that been like?

I’ve run out of count of the number of radio interviews I’ve done. It has been covered extensively, as you know, in all the Toronto media and across the country. It was front-page news on Le Devoir in Montreal, and the Quebecers are taking a keen interest in it because they’re going into that debate right now about the Charter of Values that is very controversial. And, from what I’ve gathered from the people in Quebec I’ve talked to, this is a fundamental reason why they think that they need that because it has to be made very, very clear that all people are equal before the law. And as a consequence, there will be no religious manifestations in the public institutions.

I’ve had no negative feedback on this issue, I’ve had feedback from four or five different countries, I’ve had feedback from Muslims, I’ve had feedback from Jews, I’ve had feedback from Christians, I’ve had feedback from professors, professionals outside of the university, from everyday people, and they’re all of one mind: “This is absolutely nuts.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. M

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