The Mehta case isn’t about free speech. And it’s not the exercise of academic freedom. It is a professor in a position of power publicly bullying his own students for his amusement and the adulation of his followers. Reason enough to fire him. But…
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 17, 2018.
Start with this. I am no longer conflicted about Acadia University’s decision to fire psychology professor Rick Mehta. The university had plenty of good reasons to dismiss him.
On the other hand, I am still troubled by Acadia’s willingness to stir its own self-interest — “damaging the reputation of the institution” and the implicit notion that it should protect its students from views they may not like — into an otherwise reasonable-reasons stew of justifications for his termination.
Let’s recap. Mehta, a publicity seeking prof, had made himself into a look-at-me, mini-Jordan Peterson, contrarian hero to the alt-right with his unrelenting torrent of inflammatory, alt-wrong social media posts:
“Mehta claims multiculturalism is a scam; the gender wage gap a sham; feminism “seems hell bent on taking down Western civilization;” now ex-Tory Senator Lynn Behak had it right when she praised the “positive experiences” of residential schools; “endless apologies and compensation” to indigenous peoples have created a victim narrative; the civil rights’ group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, is really a hate group that engages in “reprehensible practices;” and so on and so fifth…”
Students complained about that and much more serious else. Faculty complained. The administration acted. It commissioned an internal report by Jeff Hooper, the dean of the faculty of sciences, and then asked retired Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay to conduct a separate external investigation into the complaints against Mehta.
In August, the university sacked Mehta. Though Acadia tersely confirmed the firing, it refused to release the reports that led to it.
Which left columnists (me included), Facebook posters and Instagram intellectuals to ponder the real reasons for his dismissal.
While the university still hasn’t released those reports — it should — Mehta himself last week provided his official firing letter from Heather Hemming, Acadia’s academic vice president, to various news outlets in order to bolster his argument he was fired for speaking out against the university’s new mission of “committing to social justice.”
Mehta had claimed the university provided him with only “broad and unspecified reasons” for his dismissal.
Hemming’s eight-page, single-spaced letter begs to differ, laying out specific after specific under eight different headings before acknowledging she had “provide[d] only examples to demonstrate” the justification for his firing. “The particulars… are too voluminous to repeat in this letter.”
Some of the particulars she did cite provide reason enough.
For example, when other professors reviewed the content of Mehta’s publicly posted lectures, it became clear much class time — “in some classes, 90 per cent or more” — was “spent on topics which are irrelevant or not connected to the course syllabus… In the case of a course like Intro Psychology, there is a discipline-based expectation that topics and concepts will be covered that are typical of similar courses across the country.” His professor colleagues weren’t the only ones who felt that way. Twenty four of 28 students in the class who were interviewed expressed concern about Mehta’s “in-class diversions,” Hemming noted. “This clearly calls into question whether these students have had sufficient exposure to the science underlying psychology, or to key concepts related to their future program of studies.”
While Mehta claimed he was only “trying to offer a different perspective and [was] provocative to promote critical thinking,” the reality — according to the Hemming letter — is that “students report that you are quick to shut down people who disagree with your perspective and that you often ignore students who you do not wish to hear or respond to.”
Provocative? Promoting critical thinking?
But perhaps the most egregious incident cited in the Hemming letter involved an audio recording of one of his classes, which Mehta had posted to a publicly accessible Dropbox folder. During the class, one student had “disclosed her rape experience.”
That initial breach of the student’s privacy might very well have been accidental, but Hemming’s letter notes Mehta refused to remove it even when its “inappropriateness” was pointed out to him in a letter. “Not only did you not remove the audio file when requested,” Hemming notes, “you responded by tweeting publicly to your followers to make copies to preserve the audio recordings online. When asked a question on Facebook about the expectation of privacy in the classroom, you shockingly stated that ‘the student’s right to confidentiality and privacy was lost the moment she loudly proclaimed what had happened to her in her personal life.’”
Does a professor really have the right to turn anything a student says in the classroom into Facebook fodder?
That wasn’t the only instance noted in which Mehta used social media to “demean” his students. He publicly attacked another student “for the quality of their research, then breached their privacy and posted comments inviting others to weigh in.” Hemming then quotes from MacKay’s report in which he urged a “full read of the Twitter exchange to see the extent to which she was attacked and ganged up on by Dr. Mehta’s followers on his site. He in no way defended his student and in part initiated the attack.”
This is not free speech. And it is not the exercise of academic freedom. It is a professor in a position of power publicly bullying his own students for his amusement and the adulation of his followers.
It is reprehensible and — given the fact Mehta has taken no responsibility for his own outrageous behaviour, or expressed any willingness to change it — reason enough for his firing.
But… And here’s where, for me, it gets complicated.
Much else of what Hemming regards as Mehta’s unacceptable behaviour is really just his dumb-as-dirt expression of opinions some/many/most of us might not agree with. (See above.) The university has no business in the personal Twitter feeds of its employees. (That said, and it inevitably does get to be a complicated rabbit hole, the MacKay report points out Mehta often brought his social media posts into his classroom lectures, and “thus linked your classroom teaching and your social media activities.”)
I have even less — no — time for the university’s argument Mehta shouldn’t have the right to criticize Acadia itself. Incredibly, one of the eight categories for dismissal in the Hemming letter is “Damaging the Reputation of the Institution by Attacking the University and Colleagues on Social Media.”
Which transforms and confuses the issue from Mehta’s fitness as an academic into one of protecting the university from criticism.
According to Hemming, Mehta’s reputational transgressions “include comments you made where you give Acadia a one-star rating and advise students not to attend the university since Acadia is pursuing a ‘social justice agenda’ and is not open to a range of perspectives. You also attack Open Acadia as a ‘cash cow’ that ‘treats its employees like dirt.’”
Hemming also accuses Mehta of making “poisonous Twitter statements that Acadia should start saving money by cutting the Women & Gender Studies Program.” She cites divisive tweeting “that pits science against the arts,” and his disparaging of disciplines such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“In MacKay (Appendix 6),” Hemming adds, “there are multiple posts demonstrating conduct where you damage the reputation of the university.”
Should a publicly funded educational institution where — as a spokesperson for the university put it — “academic freedom, free speech, and open debate are actively encouraged and vigorously defended” fire those who criticize it.
That’s not what happened, of course, but that is the way some will want to spin it.
That’s the real problem here. The university had good reasons to fire Rick Mehta. But by conflating and commingling those reasons with specious arguments about its own reputation and seeming to accept the notion Mehta shouldn’t be allowed to share his wrong-headed rants on social media or challenge and provoke his students, Acadia has given Mehta a worm-wriggle for his own bad behaviour.
He will undoubtedly try to use it. We shouldn’t let him get away with it.