All Eyes on the Arbitration of the #FrancesWiddowsonCase

September 2022

On August 24, 2022, I sat down with the amusing and interesting Gad Saad to discuss my case. Although I have mentioned many of the details of my firing from Mount Royal University (MRU) in different contexts – some of them stranger than fiction – I was able to provide a comprehensive summary on The Saad Truth. Reiterating this overview might be helpful to those who are still wondering why Mount Royal University (MRU) decided to fire a tenured professor, as well as to stress, once again, the importance of my case for academic freedom and freedom of expression in Canadian universities today.

My case is going to be examined over 10 hearing days in January (16-27, 2023). I have been pushing for the arbitration to be made public so that the misinformation/disinformation that has been circulating over the last two years can be addressed. The worst of this was from a CBC article in which MRU stated that, while it was committed to fostering expression and free speech, academic freedom “does not justify harassment or discrimination”. There was also a comment in the original story from an anonymous source (since removed after I complained about this to the CBC) that stated that I was let go because of my “personal behaviour towards proponents of Indigenization and supporters of addressing BIPOC inequities at MRU”. This article led many people to assume that MRU would not have fired me unless I had mistreated others in the workplace. University of Calgary economics professor Kent Fellows, for example, encouraged people to read the “important context” provided by the anonymous source in the original CBC story and stated the following: “MRU is going to take a bunch of flak for this so it’s not a decision that would have been made lightly...It’s never ‘easy’ to justify firing a tenured faculty member”. This indicates a failure to understand how those entrusted to protect the foundational principles underpinning a liberal arts education have allowed themselves to be held hostage by a mob made up of relatively few student and faculty activists.

Ensuring that arbitration in my case is open to observers rather than closed to them is also important because universities are publicly funded institutions, and it is likely that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on five separate investigations pertaining to my case. Although labour arbitrations are generally considered to be private matters involving an employer and employee, the public nature of universities challenges this logic. It is in the public interest to ensure that funds are being spent to improve education, rather than on authoritarian “human resources management” tools intended to suppress dissent and protect a university’s reputation and “brand”. Arbitration is one of the only venues in which university administrators can be held accountable to the public for their decisions.

Finally, opening up the arbitration to the public will be helpful to union representatives who often lack the necessary expertise in procedural fairness required to protect faculty members. As is pointed out on a website that has been developed about my case, I have been subjected to incredibly unfair and secretive processes since November 2020. These processes were not initially challenged by my union. Instead of ensuring that natural justice protections were in place, I was told to ensure that I had a “nice beverage” and “box of tissues” on hand to “prepare for the stress” I was going to encounter. When I explained that I had not even been provided with signed and dated complaints or approved procedures to be followed in the investigation, I was mistakenly informed that the Collective Agreement did not require these standard legal due-process protections. It was then asserted that I should not be concerned about the investigation process until discipline had been issued. Had I followed this advice I would have found myself at a significant disadvantage in relation to the upcoming arbitration hearing.

Although extremely dissatisfied with what transpired, I remained silent because I was told by my union that I should “play the long game” and wait to clear my name in an impartial and transparent arbitration process. I even had to endure a gag order while one of the complainants, who had since left MRU, broke confidentiality and spoke in a retaliatory act of revenge to Calgary Herald journalist Alanna Smith. MRU argued that, as I was still an employee, I was expected to maintain confidentiality because “[t]he obligation to maintain confidentiality exists even when the other individual involved is no longer an employee”. These constant violations of due process have made me skeptical that my interests will be protected if the arbitration hearing is closed to observers.

A public arbitration process will shed light on the flawed procedures that resulted in the three “reasons” that were given for my firing in President Rahilly’s December 20, 2021 termination letter: 1) that I was found to violate the Personal Harassment Policy and the Code of Conduct - Employees; 2) that I had brought forward a complaint that was frivolous, vexatious, malicious and not in good faith; and 3) that I had significantly contributed to a harassing and toxic workplace environment, which had a negative impact on the mission and reputation of Mount Royal University. These “reasons” were followed with twelve “examples” of my conduct. But, as I mentioned during Gad Saad’s podcast, almost all of these “examples” cannot legitimately be the subject of the arbitration because they were not part of any investigation required by the Collective Agreement. (These examples seem to have been added, after the fact, in an apparent attempt to buttress the legally dubious findings of “harassment” and “discrimination” for social media commentary.)

Only four “examples”, therefore, can be discussed in January 2023. These include the following:

  1. one Tweet that satirized the concept of “misgendering fatigue” and the LGBTQ initialism (an investigator hired by MRU maintained that this violated three MRU policies and two provincial laws);

  2. a number of satirical Tweets that tagged an indigenous studies professor who was trying to mobilize an anonymous “student-led” initiative to get me fired (an investigator hired by MRU found that this violated the Personal Harassment Policy);

  3. the findings with respect to a retaliatory complaint filed by Dr. Renae Watchman before she left for McMaster University. This included a number of satirical Tweets about various “woke” claims, as well as a satirical reply posted on Facebook that proposed an “Oppression Point System” for evaluating MRU faculty members. These were found, again by an investigator hired by MRU, to create a toxic workplace environment and damage the university’s reputation; and

  4. one of the complaints that I had filed – so as to hold all faculty members to the same standard to which I was being held – was found to be frivolous and vexatious and not made in good faith.

Although the frivolous and vexatious charge is unlikely to stick because MRU withheld the information necessary to understand its complaint requirements, the other three “examples” will be adjudicated according to the legal thresholds for harassment and discrimination. This should involve, first of all, determining whether social media activities on one’s private social media accounts is legitimately a workplace matter that should be regulated by the university without the protections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Gad Saad addressed this in his interview with me by asserting that “the answer has to be no” because this would mean that professors would “lose the capacity to be an individual with individual dignity and personal agency”. With the corporatization of the academy, however, it is often argued that universities should be able to protect their reputations from harm, and this will involve making sure that professors do not say anything that is deemed to be offensive, immoral, or harmful – utterances that are supposedly protected in Alberta by government directed free speech policies and academic freedom protections in collective agreements.

If private social media activities are deemed to be a workplace matter at MRU – effectively overriding the Expression and Free Speech Policy and the Charter – it will have to be determined whether, for example, one Tweet satirizing “misgendering fatigue” and the LGBTQ initialism is harassing and discriminatory rather than protected expression. To be successful in this regard, the university will presumably be required to demonstrate, again using meaningful and quantifiable metrics, that the Tweet had an adverse impact on the complainant in the workplace. Would a reasonable person be prevented from pursuing their workplace goals if they chose to read this one satirical Tweet and be offended by it? These kinds of questions will be of considerable interest to the Canadian public.

Although it appears obvious that my satirical social media activities are neither a workplace matter nor harassing, discriminatory or defamatory, in this climate of identity politics becoming totalitarian – i.e. the growing ascendancy of “woke-ism” – nothing is certain. In “woke-ism”, due process is perceived to be an instrument of oppression and rules must be skewed so as to “empower” the members of groups perceived to be oppressed. This is why having “all eyes on the arbitration of the #FrancesWiddowsonCase” is so important. Without fairness, transparency, and public accountability, we will be unable to develop a complete understanding of the challenges that are currently facing academic freedom and freedom of expression in Canadian universities.

Totalitarianism is on the move. We need to fight back with all that we have before it is too late!