Lindsay Shepherd: The graduate student who has been turned off by academia (and who could blame her)

Photo: Anthony Moretti 27Nov2016

Until a few weeks ago, Lindsay Shepherd was just another graduate student.

Now she’s at the center of a free speech storm.

What has happened at Wilfrid Laurier University, where Shepherd is a student, over the past few weeks offers powerful evidence to right-wing critics of higher education that any idea that challenges left-wing orthodoxy will be slapped down.

Now, before we go any further, let me make my position clear: I am a free-speech advocate who believes that all sides of a debate deserve an equal and free hearing. Yes, I want to hear from people who disagree, especially if they do with me, on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, guns, transgender rights, kneeling during the national anthem and more. Whether I agree with the person is irrelevant; he or she has just as much right as I do to advocate for what he or she believes.

Put another way: I hate censorship. And unless someone breaks a law in an effort to have his or her voice heard, then he or she should have the desired platform to make a case.

With that, we return to Lindsay Shepherd.

Readers of this blog will remember that I introduced them to her a few days ago. I suggested then that if people didn’t know anything about Shepherd that they likely soon would.

Oh, boy, was I right.

The Chronicle of Higher Education explores what has happened to Shepherd since she showed what she thought was an innocuous video to her students.

Early last month, during the small-group tutorial she leads, she showed a short video clip from a Canadian current-affairs talk show called The Agenda, in which panelists debated the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Remember: Shepherd showed a video clip as part of a class-wide conversation; at no point did she advocate for or against any position.

Soon after, Shepherd was called into a meeting with faculty from her department. The Chronicle report notes she was

…told that one, or perhaps more than one, student — they wouldn’t say how many — had complained. They wouldn’t let her see the complaint, or tell her what it said, or what exactly the student (or students) had found offensive or perhaps threatening.

Smacks of McCarthy-like tactics, no? Tell someone there’s negative information about them but don’t let the person see it? Not cool, if you ask me.

Lest you think the saga ends there, well…

Shepherd recorded the meeting. (Perhaps the most important elements of the exchange are here.) And soon it became public. The Chronicle adds

When she made that recording public, the response was instant and vehement. Canadian newspapers published articles with headlines like “Laurier university accused of censorship,”“University bullies student,” and “Thought police strike again.”

Much of that publicity strongly favored Ms. Shepherd.

I bet it did.

Perhaps coincidentally, she received an apology from the administration.

You guessed it: That decision added fuel to the conflagration and led a group of people who argued Shepherd had created the equivalent of a hostile-work environment to write to the administration. The Chronicle reports that

The signers of that letter, who wrote that they wished to remain anonymous because they feared retribution, wondered why the president didn’t issue “an apology to the students who were harmed by the showing of this video.”

As far as I know, no one has made clear how these students were harmed. (I’m not trying to be sarcastic, and I’m not trying to be naive; I’m stating that I don’t know what kind of harm they suffered.)

I’ve come across one op-ed that questions why Shepherd is being lauded while other people who openly advocate for social change often are treated with hostility. I have an answer: Shepherd was not advocating for anything. She didn’t tell her students that transgender people are good, bad, right or wrong. Rather, she asked the students to consider how society uses language.

She was doing what she was supposed to do.

It’s not surprising that Shepherd says she’s been turned off to higher education as a result of what’s happened to her.

That’s a pity.

Her critics will be thrilled if she never teaches again. But her voice and her message that the open exchange of ideas matters won’t be silenced.

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This entry was posted in academic administrations, academic freedom, Canada, college students, colleges and universities, faculty, graduate education, higher education, Lindsay Shepherd. Bookmark the permalink.

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