REINSTATE DEPARTMENT HEAD, UNIVERSITY URGED
COLLEAGUES DEFEND PROFESSOR WHO APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONTROVERSIAL RACE-RELATED TWEETS
Aprofessor at Laurentian University who made controversial, race- related remarks should be reinstated as a department head, some colleagues and students argue.
Ecologist David Lesbarreres lost his post as dean of graduate studies in June after tweeting views that struck many as tone- deaf, if not indefensible.
Responding to a thread about racial inequalities, Lesbarreres wrote: “And shockingly enough on our campuses, even white males receive racist comments about their past. Why can’t we all see that we were once a monkey, let alone bacteria?”
The post was quickly taken down and Lesbarreres extended a prompt apology.
“Last night, I i ssued a tweet that hurt many people,” he wrote. “I apologize for my words and understand that I must educate myself further about # Blacklivesmatter and Tweeter.”
Lesbarreres made matters worse in his initial tweet by signing off with the hashtag “Alllivesmatters,” although he subsequently said he was not familiar with the term — which he misspelled, pluralizing “matter” — or what it stood for.
“I did not know that # existed and now realize it is rooted in values I do not hold and that I strongly condemn,” he wrote. “I pledge to continue to educate myself, continue the fight for inclusivity and against racism, and I apologize to all people I have hurt.”
In a statement, Laurentian president Robert Hache described the original tweet from Lesbarreres as “inappropriate and offensive,” adding the university was looking into the matter “with the utmost care and attention.”
Two weeks later, Hache announced Lesbarreres would be stepping down as dean of grad studies “for an indeterminate period.”
Three fellow professors, however, are now sticking up for Lesbarreres, arguing he has been unfairly demonized and deserves to be returned to his deanship.
“To lobby to damage the reputation, career, or family livelihood of people who disagree with you is not a particularly magnanimous instinct and mode of human behaviour,” reads an op- ed by professors Guy Chamberland, Mery Martinez Garcia and Jason Lepojarvi.
“It is even less honourable when the person simply made a human error; worse still, if they felt deeply sorry and immediately apologized for the mistake, but the unforgiving mob still persisted in its cheap performative ‘justice’.”
A student- led petition, meanwhile, is also making the rounds. It, too, makes the case that depriving Lesbarreres of his department role is going too far.
“We feel that this reaction was unnecessary given Dr. Lesbarreres’ reputation of being inclusive and respectful to all students, as well as the fact that his apology and regret was swift, once he realized he had unintentionally used a hashtag that he didn’t know was racist in nature, and that his tweet hurt people,” the petition states.
The professor has “worked tirelessly and repeatedly to better the experiences of international students since his arrival at Laurentian,” according to the petitioners, who point to “canoe expeditions and snowshoeing treks” as examples of activities he has organized to help them adjust and feel at home.
“We believe that Dr. Lesbarreres’ words were not intended to be malicious or in any way hurtful,” they write. “We believe that he was sincere in acknowledging his mistake, and that he regrets the hurt he unintentionally caused others.”
The three faculty members say they support the petition and feel there is a lesson to be learned.
While they acknowledge their colleague’s tweet was “terribly timed” and “poorly worded,” they contend it was more clumsy than contemptible. And they take the prof at his word that he inadvertently referenced the All Lives Matter movement.
By using this hashtag — or a version of it, at least — he “accidentally stepped on a cultural landmine, which exploded in his face,” they write.
The online reaction, however, has been out of proportion to the professor’s misstep, they say, becoming an example of so-called “callout culture” or “cancel culture.”
Lesbarreres was right to apologize, say his defenders, but, if anything, they think he went too far with his mea culpa.
“We try to teach our children to apologize sincerely for honest mistakes — but not to grovel, especially if they are being pressured,” the trio writes. “When that happens, they should stand their ground. Why? Because what sensible people want is your apology, not subjugation. And insensible people will ultimately accept neither because what they want is blood under the guise of ‘deconstruction’.”
Combating “genuine racism” on campus, or in the community, is clearly important, the professors say, but the “witch hunt” against Lesbarreres — as some students have described it at the Umentioned Laurentian page on Facebook — is not helpful.
“To go after innocent scapegoats like this comes across as a diversion, a mockery of justice, and is painfully divisive,” they write.
Punishing the professor for “a misconceived hashtag” that he publicly apologized for sends an awful message to students, they contend.
“We are setting them up to a life of fear, fragility, and pathological grievance by erecting these puritanical perfections that no one can live up to,” they write. “False perfection will kill us all. We must be better than this. We must be better than falsely perfect.”
The fellow academics are calling on colleagues “who feel that they may have chastised Dr. Lesbarreres a little too hastily to please apologize to him,” and those who have remained silent — “perhaps in fear of personal and professional repercussions” — to reach out to him and “speak on his behalf.”
They are also asking management and board members to “stand by your falsely accused employees” and to publicly defend them “against online and on-campus purity mobs.”
Isabelle Bourgeault-tasse, director of communications with Laurentian, said the university couldn’t discuss whether Lesbarreres might be returned as dean.
“You will appreciate that this is a personnel matter and therefore the university cannot comment on the details of this matter,” she said.