Update: Ryerson Department Chair Demands Professor Surrender a Letter of Reference

September 2019

In June I lost my position as Lecturer with the Ryerson Philosophy Department, where I’d been teaching regularly since 2010. This de facto firing (technically I’m simply not being re-hired for 2019-20) was the culmination of a dispute with my Chair going back to January, concerning a letter of reference I wrote for a former student. When my Chair suspended me for not surrendering the Letter for his and Human Resources’ inspection, the SAFS advocated for me, and posted my own statement on the dispute. (In June I posted a fuller account of my case on an American Philosophy blog.)

I’m very grateful for the support of the SAFS. The board’s public words of support, and the confirming judgement of several SAFS members, strengthened and sustained me in my decision to resist my Chair’s demand. Despite losing my job, I’m glad I resisted thru the stressful months of intensifying pressure.

My Union has been worse than useless. I’ve filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, alleging negligence of Duty to Represent. We’re scheduled for mediation in early October.

The CAUT declined to get involved directly in my case, but their stated position on “custody and control of academic records” would seem to agree with the SAFS, that my Chair’s demand was undue.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is looking into my case. Their question is whether my Charter rights have been clearly violated. I should have an answer from them by September.

I refused to surrender the letter because the Chair had no right to demand it from me. Indeed I strictly had no obligation to defend my letter to him at all.

First, the letter was my confidential communication to select Admissions Committees. I’m not sure my Chair should have been told I’d written the letter, let alone anything about its contents.

Second, confidentiality concerns aside, the allegation he acted from was so weak that he shouldn’t have asked much from me. He had vague and indirect info about my letter, a second- or third-hand tip that my letter was “apparently not always helpful and does not read well from the point of view of gender somehow.” To that, I could rightly have responded: “By what Ryerson policy need a reference letter be totally helpful & read well to all receivers?”

If my Chair had received credible evidence that my Letter contained a literal bomb, I agree that I could be compelled to defend myself on pain of discipline. On the other extreme, had my Chair simply received an anonymous email saying “Paul Bali problematic!” he could safely have ignored it. I concede there’s a grey zone somewhere between these two extremes, and it is because of this debatable grey that I responded to my Chair’s initial inquiries, and tried to assuage his concerns.

My own rights aside, there’s the question of the student’s interests. Yet the complaint was—at its moral best—a naïve attempt to protect the student from something she didn’t need or want protection from. The letter was highly positive—exuberant—and had been used successfully in a past round of gradschool applications. The student had some prior idea of its stylistic eccentricity; indeed she’d asked me to re-use this Letter that could stand out from the field of pro-forma letters. When I first received word of the complaint, I let the student know, so she could decide to pull the letter if she thought that prudent. I politely explained all these factors to my Chair early in our correspondence, but he seemed uninterested. Later, when he demanded I surrender the letter to him, he wasn’t concerned about getting the student’s own permission to scrutinize it. I had to conclude that, whatever the original intentions of the person who complained, my Chair was not much motivated by my student’s best interests in all this. Her own agency and rights were being weirdly discounted.

One reason the complaint was so vague is that the Complainer was concerned about violating the confidentiality of the application process. Another reason is that there was no plausibly articulable rule that the letter violated. Rather, my words had rubbed someone’s sensibilities the wrong way. The “gender” angle was a handy ad hoc politicization of their discomfort with something more in the personality of the letter.

Most likely, it was this line in the letter that cost me my job, ultimately:

“I think of her as an incarnated fragment of Sophia, returned from the realm of Archetypes to observe the Academy, to kindly judge us, and decide just what we temple-keeps have been up to these several centuries.”

Presumably, the rule I violated is: Don’t compare your student to a goddess. Perhaps the Complainer forgot that Sophia is the super-person at the centre of Philosophy itself—lexically if not historically. An excessively bureaucratized Philosophy is likely what anathematized my letter, then pushed me out. This is a form of Philosophy that has let into its daily lexicon the quantified language of Human Resources while banning the theologic register. For all its putative concern with Diversity, this professionalized Philosophy has de-diversified by cutting contact with a rich and ancient store of metaphor—metaphor at minimum.