York University has had it particularly bad in the last few years. After multiple sexual assault incidents on campus and, only a few months ago, being called “a hunting ground for sexual predators” by Toronto Life, its reputation for protecting female students is quite low.
It appears they aren’t looking to make a case for themselves any time soon. A student at the university taking an online sociology course recently requested he be excused from a group project that required interaction with female students. He cited religious beliefs for the request. In most cases the natural reaction would be to balk at such a request and to respond in much the same way his professor, Paul Grayson, originally did.
It was refreshing to know that a professor understood the ramifications of such a request and the extended impact approving it could cause. My first instinct was to congratulate both the professor and the university for making the correct decision until I read on to discover that York University had not, in fact, supported the professor’s decision.
I understand that there is a duty that every educational institution has to accommodate various religions, races, genders, and sexual orientations. It isn’t an easy task. There are bound to be times when conflicts arise and a general human rights debate ensues. In this instance I understand that I am biased given the fact that I am not only a woman but also one who is sensitive to gender equality issues but I am going to try to put that aside for a second. My problem is this:
Is the whole idea of providing higher education, beyond the base level of books-and-notes itself, not to prepare the students for life? Is it not there to not only teach, instruct, and mentally develop students, but to also create long-lasting social skills that can be taken with the students into the “real world”? How can a decision to back a request to not interact with a certain gender aid this student in the rest of their life?
I am pleased to know that the student continued on with the project at Professor Grayson’s request and completed the project. Perhaps it has helped broaden their horizons although I doubt it greatly. But if Grayson had submitted to York’s directive to uphold the student’s request, what lesson would have been taught?
The Dean of the faculty of liberal arts and professional studies supplied the opinion that the student should have had his desire appealed to by saying that it did not have a “substantial impact” on the rights of other students. The university also argued that the student also should have been accommodated since it was an online course that the student thought wouldn’t require campus attendance. In an interview on Metro Morning for CBC, Rhonda Lenton (Provost at York) said:
“We are committed to gender equity; we do not prioritize one set of rights over the others. If we had made the accommodation based on the student’s request around the religious accommodation, I could understand why people might feel that way, but that was not the defining factor.”
The notion that any set of rights were not prioritized over another is ridiculous. Perhaps I am letting my biases seep in here at this point but I cannot help but feel my rights as a woman were put on a lower rung along with the rights of female students at York. The impact to this sort of decision can and should be substantial especially for the university itself. I find it hard to believe that if the student had made the same request but swapped out “women” for “black people” or any other race, the university would have had a different opinion on the matter. Or at least I would hope that, as unfortunate as it is, women are the only group being marginalized in these situations by the administration at York University. At least then it’s a less steep hill to climb but a large one nonetheless.
It makes me wonder, however, why it was okay in the university’s eyes for this student to make such a request. If I had been one of the females in that group and heard about this situation, I would not have wanted to work with that student either. But I would have because that is part of the world we live in and I would never make a request to be omitted from a group situation based on someone’s religion. As an institution that hasn’t done much for itself in the way of making female students feel safe and respected, an issue like this makes me wonder where their priorities lie. The excuse of it being an online course as a legitimate reason for this to have happened is completely ridiculous to me: more than half of business and social interaction is now online – just because you are not seeing someone in person no longer means that you do not have to interact with them. If anything, the fact that it was an online course should be more of a reason for the university to take notice of something like this.
I hope that after the actions of York have been put in the spotlight during a controversy such as this aspiring post-secondary students think twice about their applications to this school. I could never call for a total boycott of the institution but until they make it clear where their priorities lie, especially in the equality factors of education, I would never consider giving them my thousands of dollars. Perhaps it is too much to ask for but a document stating their mission in regards to equality across the board might just be what is in order to save their reputation.
And then they have to uphold it.