The Importance Of Safety

I recently made the decision to resign from the University of Guelph Senate. It is not, at least for me at this time, a safe space. I realized this over the course of the last semester when each scheduled senate or senate subcommittee meeting since September brought with it an incredibly overwhelming sense of anxiety and panic, coupled with spikes in blood pressure, headaches, and other physical manifestations of stress. Senate should be lively, and yes, at times challenging – but it shouldn’t be this. 

Resigning from senate was not an easy decision, and one that I spent months agonizing over. Prior to the last year, senate was something I quite enjoyed. I served on numerous senate subcommittees, including in the role of vice-chair or chair. Regardless, it became necessary for me to walk away to protect myself. So how did it get to this point?

To answer that question, I need to begin with a bit of personal history. Bear with me, please. 

As a gay man, I have been verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted – all because of my sexuality. I was raised in a Roman Catholic home, went to a Roman Catholic Church, attended both a Roman Catholic elementary school and a Roman Catholic high school. I learned at a young age that I was destined for hell, that my “sin” was somehow worse than anything else imaginable, that I was different in the worst possible way, and that I was unworthy, broken, and wrong. I have been called horrific things as I’ve walked down the street. I have had things hurled at me in disgust. And I have had my personal property destroyed – all because I am gay (or was assumed to be gay before I officially shared my sexuality with the world). 

With this in mind, it should be unsurprising that safety has always been an important concern for me. And as a result of this, I became at an early age hyper-aware of my behaviour, how I carried myself, how I looked at other people, how I expressed emotion, the language I used (particularly with pronouns of someone whom I might have been interested in), and my environment. It was and still remains an exhausting checklist that I use to ensure some sense of personal safety. 

And because of this lack of safety, I spent far too long hiding from the world – never being true to myself, or truly myself with others. When I finally shared my true self with the world, I didn’t magically and instantaneously stop thinking about safety. To this day I still think twice about sharing my orientation when I meet new people – particularly in a professional setting. And as far along as the Queer community has come in the past decades, STEM still isn’t as open or welcoming as it should be. I know of only one other Queer faculty member in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (I’m sure there are others). I have colleagues with whom I’ve openly worked for more than a decade who still ask about my wife and kids. I’ve sat in meetings where the discussion of topic was the “gay problem” and the “trans problem”. I’ve arrived at my office to find photoshopped porn left on my door. And I’ve had religious propaganda left in my mailbox. All of this to say that while things have improved, safety remains an important concern because I recognize that there are folks out there who would wish me harm simply because I don’t fit within the strict definition of their heteronormative narrative.

Despite this, these experiences, abuses, and injustices have made me a much stronger and more resilient person. They have also made me far more aware of and sensitive to the injustices around me, and they are why I care so much about social issues. But I also recognize that I am a person with incredible privilege. I am a white (gay) man with tenure. This means that I exist in a system that has been built for me (if not for that pesky gay bit). It also means that I have the position, platform, and – importantly – the responsibility to speak out against injustices and to use my privilege to do something about them if and when I can. 

Why does this matter?

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has changed so much about our day-to-day lives. Part of this, at least for me, has been doing whatever I can to ensure the safety of the students, staff, and colleagues with whom I work – particularly those who are from equity-seeking groups. This has included asking questions – as a senator – of the university administration regarding the decisions they have made. What science justified their decisions? What evidence were they using? 

It also meant that I spoke out publicly, on Twitter, and in the media, because I felt it was my responsibility to do so. In response to our push to return to face-to-face course delivery last fall, I also shared an anonymous survey that I had developed to collect information from students regarding their opinions on returning to class. The findings of the survey were presented at senate to counter the administration’s claim that they knew what the students wanted (based, according to them, on emails they had received). And since I am a Statistician (who received their PhD in Statistics from the University of Guelph), I front-loaded the presentation with several caveats so that other senators could interpret the findings accordingly. 

After I finished presenting my findings, another senator questioned the “alleged” data that I had presented. That is, they questioned my integrity and credibility in full view of the rest of senate. This was not simply scientific curiosity to better understand the data I was presenting (which is something that researchers will happily answer). This was an unprofessional question and comment intended to undermine the findings I presented. The Chair of senate did not stop this from happening, nor did they intervene – at least not until another senator came to my defence. At that point, the Chair admonished the person coming to my defence. 

Shortly after this, another senator – in fact, the chair of a senate subcommittee – credentialed both me and my colleague, Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs – again, in full view of senate – questioning our expertise in pedagogy. Just to be clear, both Dr. Jacobs and I have received numerous awards for our teaching and pedagogical innovations – including being identified as outstanding university instructors by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. Further, we co-created the Ideas Congress Transdisciplinary Classroom that the university likes to promote through the Maclean’s annual rankings as a “cool course”. We do know a thing or two about pedagogy. 

Sadly, the Chair did nothing to stop this unprofessional and non-collegial behaviour. And when I formally stated my concerns for the senate record related to the behaviour demonstrated, the Chair replied with “they already apologized”. Later, during a separate meeting to discuss the events of the senate meeting in question (with the senate secretariat), I learned that there would be no consequences for the senators who publicly called into question our integrity, credibility, and credentials. 

Why is this a problem?

Senate is supposed to be inclusive, collegial, and welcoming to a diverse set of voices. Yes, we can disagree on things, but it should remain professional because we do not know (nor should we expect to know) the experiences our colleagues have gone through or are currently going through. This is particularly important for equity-seeking members of senate who – like me – want to feel safe, respected, and welcomed where they work. And if things go awry, the Chair of senate should ensure that collegiality is maintained – shutting down unprofessional behaviour. 

And for me, this was the last straw. Unprofessional behaviour was allowed to go unabated, unchallenged, and without consequence. As a result, I can no longer spend my energy or time supporting the University of Guelph senate. Based on my experiences, safety and inclusion are non-negotiable values for me. And for me, at this time, senate does not meet these values.

Despite all of this, I will continue to commit my time and energy to social justice through my teaching and research, and in ways that are not bound to the institution. And hopefully – at some point in the future – I will feel comfortable returning to senate.

Thank you to several friends (you know who you are) who helped me focus my thoughts as I struggled to put this into words.

1 Comment

  1. I am sorry that you were subjected to these unacceptable actions. Thank you for your dedication to innovation in pedagogy, students, and safety.

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