Saturday, January 11, 2014

I'm with York University

This may be unpopular but I commend York University for standing by their decision to instruct a professor to allow a student taking an online course to opt out of a group assignment because the student did not want to work with women for religious reasons. Professor Paul Grayson forwarded the request to the dean's office for human rights which said the professor should honour the student's request given that this was an online course and the professor had given exemptions to another student who was unable to participate. The professor was "shocked" by the student's request and angered by the university's response so he refused to comply and has generated a media outcry against York University for their decision to stand by the student.

The professor's radio interview with CBC was particularly revealing early in the interview he said:
My main concern was that for religious beliefs we can also justify not interacting with jews, blacks, gays you name it and if this were allowed to go through than presumably all these other absurd demands could be made.
The professor's issue was simply that the student used his religion as the reason to make the request, and that if the university accommodated the request however insignificant it was it could lead to all sorts of terrible consequences. So it appears the professor refused the request simply to make a point. The interviewer asked, "Could you have accommodated him?" Professor Grayson's responded:
Physically sure because it's a web based course and if for example you live afar I can't expect you to fly to Toronto to conduct a focus group, but that is a completely different situation from a student who wishes not to interact with females in class out of preference. The analogy I like to use is two students come to class on Monday morning without completing their assignments, the first didn't complete it because his father passed away ok that's a very good reason, the second didn't complete it because he got drunk all weekend, well that's not a good reason.
So the professor is now equating having a religious faith with being drunk and saying explicitly that making a request as a matter of conscience is not a very good reason. In fact freedom of religion and of conscience is a foundational right in any free society.

No one would have been harmed by accommodating the student, and I'm sure the professor would have accepted almost any other reason to grant an exception from this assignment. It should have been granted.

Paul Grayson asked for a principled response from the University and I'm pleased to say he received one. Another principled response would be to discipline Grayson for deliberately refusing to follow his dean's direction.