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‘A huge meltdown’: Professor Stéphane Sérafin on experiencing firsthand the stifling climate of Canada’s university campuses

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with University of Ottawa law professor Stéphane Sérafin about his recent essay outlining his experiences on today’s highly-charged campus.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues, I’m your host Sean Speer editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by Stéphane Sérafin, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, who in April wrote an essay entitled How Ideological Coups Happen, for a popular U.S. website about his experiences on today’s highly charged Canadian university campuses. Stéphane, as we will discuss, was subject to student complaints, including a human rights complaint, for how he covered Indigenous issues in his first-year property law course. I’m grateful to speak with him about his experience and what he thinks it tells us about the state of the university campus in Canada. Stéphane, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: Thanks for having me, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a biographical question. When did you start at the University of Ottawa? What do you teach? And what are your broader research interests?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: I began teaching at the University of Ottawa back in 2019. Not that long ago all things considered but long enough apparently to see things change, as we’ll get into. My primary research interests cover what’s included in the mandatory first-year curriculum in basically all the Canadian law schools. I’m interested in contracts. I’m interested in property law. I’ve taught both of those courses. I also have an interest in legal theory, I’ve taught a course on that twice now, and I also teach business organization. The corporate law, basically. I’ll also be teaching a secure transactions class this year. So generally, private law interests, but also legal theory, I suppose.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a follow-up question, Stéphane, about your worldview and perspective. We’ve not met before, but I follow you on Twitter. You don’t seem to fit neatly into our typical ideological categories. My sense is that you’re something of a traditionalist who’s a bit skeptical of today’s hyper liberalism and the upshot is that you don’t quite fit on the left or the right. Is that interpretation correct? If so, to what do you attribute you’re somewhat heterodox worldview?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: The way I like to put this when I bring up my worldview with people is I’m a Francophone, and that in a lot of ways accounts for my worldview, or at least the main themes of my worldview. I think you’re right to say that I’m somebody who considers myself a traditionalist. A lot of my research takes on an explicitly comparative angle. I’m a Francophone living in Ontario. I grew up in Ontario actually, so I’m a Franco-Ontarian. I do a lot of work on comparative common law, civil law topics. I have a lot of interest and respect for differing traditions, differing ways of looking at the world. Sometimes, they’re not necessarily better or worse than the others. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re just different.

The common law has a way of looking at things. The civil law has a way of looking at things, and I think it’s a view that I apply more broadly. Francophone culture has a certain way of looking at things. The Anglophone culture in the rest of the country has a certain way of looking at things. Not necessarily better than one another, but different. This I think accounts for a lot of my broader political worldview.

I wouldn’t describe myself as somebody who is neatly on the right or the left. In fact, if you were to focus on economic issues, I would probably fit more neatly within a central left classification. Even if my respect for tradition probably puts me on the other side, if you will, on social matters.

SEAN SPEER: That’s great context for our conversation today. Let’s come to your experience. As you outlined in your essay, in 2021 you were notified by the law school’s Vice Dean that some students had complained because you had challenged them a bit about how Canada’s system of Indigenous property rights were inherently racist and colonial. This led to something of a human rights process, and considerable stress and burden for you and your family. Do you want to describe the circumstances for listeners and why, as you put in the essay, you ultimately weren’t surprised by the complaints?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: To start with the complaint first. Just to be clear it wasn’t the Indigenous property rights per se that was the problem. I didn’t discuss for example the Indian Act; I would have views on the Indian Act that probably would not be actually that controversial. But the subject matter that was canvased in my class was simply the Crown’s affirmation of sovereignty, which is a perennial topic I think in activist discourse nowadays.

It features in the first-year property law class for one very simple reason, which is that the Crown’s affirmation of sovereignty in the common law way of understanding things is historically considered the root of everyone else’s property interest. The Crown affirms sovereignty over Canada, everyone else gets their interest in the land, their title to the land, derived from the Crown after that.

This was the only part of the class that was even remotely controversial if I’m being honest. The rest is rather dry. I got into trouble, essentially, I think, because I covered the topic in a relatively straightforward manner. I presented a number of cases—older cases, newer cases, the 2014 decision from the Supreme Court in Tsilhqot’in was one of the cases I assigned—I presented them in a relatively straightforward way. Here’s what the law is. Here’s what it says. 

Immediately I got pushback by a few students who insisted during the classroom discussion that I acknowledge that these decisions are inherently racist and colonialist, which I wouldn’t do. This was how I got myself into trouble. I told them this is one way of looking at things, to say that they’re racist and colonialist. Sure, okay. What does that mean? Depends on the definition of those terms that you’re employing, and also what are the implications that derive from that? You’re looking at this through one particular theoretical lens. There are others, and I’m not just going to accept that qualification in a straightforward way. We danced around for like almost an hour, actually, on this where they kept coming back to this idea that it’s colonialist and racist.

Ultimately, it turns out when the complaint was finally filed that this was actually the substance of the complaint because I had told them that this was one perspective among many and I refused to acknowledge that it was racist and colonialist, while they suggested that I had essentially engaged in discrimination. As you suggested, it wasn’t surprising to me.

I think I mentioned this in the article actually. It wasn’t surprising to me at all because of the broader environment on campus, especially starting in the summer of 2020 after the pandemic started and after the killing of George Floyd in the U.S.

A lot of these things just had a very marked influence on the climate on campus. Students afterward started sending in petitions asking the school to take measures to address what they perceived to be systemic racism. They would make demands like we want mandatory anti-racism training for all the faculty—repeat mandatory anti-racism training, not just once. They also wanted to implement what I would call a snitch line, an anonymous complaints process against students and faculty members who said things that they didn’t like.

This sort of started in the summer of 2020. More pointedly for me, in my particular university, in my particular campus, there was an incident where an adjunct professor used the N-word during a lecture. It’s a French-language class, this was a French-language lecture, and she used it in the context of like describing taboo language. Apparently, it was relevant to the classroom discussion. And because she used the actual word, it caused a huge meltdown.

People may remember this; the Quebec Premier even weighed in on this controversy. So, given this context and a couple of other things that were going on, I wasn’t surprised. I had thought that I could still get away with teaching the material in such a way which is why I went ahead and did it. I actually had some second thoughts about doing it before I even taught the class. But I said, “You know what? It can’t be that bad.” Turns out my first instinct was correct and so I landed myself in trouble because of that.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come back to the broader context and the changing environment but let’s just stick to the complaints and the issues around it for a minute if that’s okay. You mentioned in the essay that you were in contact with your faculty union. What was its reaction? It seems to me that there’s a reasonable likelihood that faculty union staff were probably sympathetic with the students on the issue but were they still prepared to represent you and your interests as a faculty member?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: I have to say that my union was very good on this issue. But moving forward I don’t know if that’s going to be the case. A lot of it depends on the personalities that are involved. On my campus at least there’s a marked divide between the Francophone and the Anglophone faculty on this issue.

The Francophones tend to be more, at least, sympathetic to the position that I’m defending here. The Anglophones tend to be more sympathetic to the students, if you will, to the point that for the adjunct in that particular case, it didn’t matter that this is a person who has no job security whatsoever, or nearly none. We’ll throw her to the wolves because she happened to say a word.

Which frankly it still bothers me quite a bit actually that people think this way. In my case at least the union was ready to take this up. Their reaction was quite positive, but depending on who happens to be elected to the governing body, who happens to be the grievance officer at the time, this may not be the case moving forward. I’m not going to hang my hat on the union to protect me in a case like this, that’s for sure.

SEAN SPEER: Did any faculty contact you one way or another? I asked because one of the striking aspects of the recent firing of Princeton Professor Josh Katz, who was a highly regarded classist, is that virtually none of his former colleagues contacted him. He was persona non grata. Was that your experience?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: When I started going public with this, I can say that the only time I’ve ever had any colleagues who interacted with me on this to tell me, “No I disagree with you,” was when I started bringing this up in actual faculty meetings afterward. There were things that were being pushed in the faculty meetings afterward where I was like, “No I’m not going to have any of this anymore.” They would push back during the faculty meetings and we would have a couple of email exchanges afterward.

For example, when I published this piece, I have heard nothing from anyone except for other profs who have been supportive. The people who are supportive have written to me, but nothing at all from anyone else. With the pandemic, it’s been hard to be interacting with other professors. We don’t go into the office that often and just people haven’t seen each other in years but no one really contacts me anyway. I get this impression that I have the cold shoulder at least in a lot of quarters, at least among the people who hold the opposite view I guess to me on this.

SEAN SPEER: While you were ultimately protected by the principle of academic freedom this past year, you still dropped Indigenous issues from your property law course. In the coming year, you’ve opted to stop teaching first-year courses altogether. Why? Why do you feel like you could no longer teach first-year law students?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: The way the complaint ultimately played out, the way I understand it, it was filed with the human rights office. The human rights office refused that because it was filed anonymously. Going back to what the students were demanding about an anonymous complaints process, this seems to matter. The human rights office didn’t take it up. It ended up being taken on by the Dean personally and after two weeks or something of investigation, I don’t know what he actually did, he eventually dismissed it, saying, “We’re opting not to proceed at this time.”

I was ultimately not disciplined or anything of the sort for doing this, but at no point was I assured that there would be no repercussions. In theory, I suppose that complaint could come back against me at some point in the future. The Katz file, I don’t know the full particulars of that case, but the way it looks to the public based on what happened, it looks like they brought back a complaint that had been dealt with as a pretext to deal with his views on these sorts of issues.

So I can’t take any chances from that perspective. I’m theoretically allowed to speak out, which I do, but in terms of including classroom content that students might find offensive in the classroom setting, that’s running a risk at this point. It’s creating a possibility of more ammunition against me. I’d rather avoid that. Especially for the Indigenous content, which to your point about the first-year classes, now there’s a move to make that—that has been formally approved, at least—to include Indigenous content in all the first-year classes mandatory, or at least strongly encouraging faculty to do it with a view of making it mandatory two years down the road.

SEAN SPEER: You argue in the essay that your experience is far from aberrant, that between 2014 when you graduated as a student from the same university in 2019, when you returned as a professor, something changed in its intellectual and cultural life. What happened, and what do you think was its cause?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: It’s quite interesting. I think there are a lot of things that played into this. One of them was, I think, if we’re being honest, was the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. I think a lot of people on campus were always left-leaning for the most part. Could I identify any real conservatives that my law faculty? Maybe one or two. Most of them were centre-left or even radically leftist, but the intolerance to opposite viewpoints, or to certain other ways of looking at things—we have our perspective on issues and everything else is incorrect, and actually like racist, sexist colonialist, et cetera—really comes out, I think, to me after 2016 because of that.

I mean, there are other issues too. I mentioned in the piece the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. One of the things that the commission recommended was decolonization. I don’t think they call it decolonization, it was incorporating Indigenous legal perspectives into law schools. That also feeds into this, not because that’s actually a bad thing, I think it’s a good thing to incorporate Indigenous legal traditions into the law school curriculum, but the question is how it’s done.

With that climate of, “We need to push back against these right-wing reactionaries, or people who are perceived to be right-wing reactionaries and so dissent can’t be tolerated,” and people who are already quite leftist in their way of thinking of things, or in a particular way are into social justice type agenda, the way that those recommendations are going to get implemented is going to follow a certain pattern. There are a bunch of other causes, I think, but it all brews into a perfect storm.

SEAN SPEER: In the essay, you argue that it’s in your interest to be “as public as possible about the current situation.” Help me and our listeners understand this point. Why did you choose to go public with your experience?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: The easiest thing for me to do would have been to just be quiet completely. I could have let this complaint pass and hope that nobody picked up on it, and just quietly changed my way of doing things. The problem was that there are a lot of people who do this—perhaps that’s the wiser course of action. The problem I saw was, with the way things were going, that was not a wise choice on my part. Or at least it’s not a choice I could live with because it would require me to stay silent while more and more extreme sorts of positions are being normalized as not only the default view but the only possible way of looking at a certain set of issues.

If I chose to speak up, and I did, I chose to start speaking up during faculty meetings for example where I’m often really the only person who’s going to object to any of this, probably there are others who agree with me or at least are more sympathetic to my view, but they don’t say anything. I’m the person who actually says anything whatsoever to push back on, for example, there was a proposal to create a mandatory anti-Black racism class at one point.

These are things I push back on when they’re floated in committees, and if I’m going to do that then I better be public about it, because any retaliation then that is made against me is going to look, like in Joshua Katz’s issue, which I guess it didn’t help him, but at least at the very least give the impression that it is retaliating against me for expressing my views, which I’m formally allowed to do. The collective agreement protects my academic freedom and my right to express these sorts of opinions, so if I’m going to go for it I might as well do it in public so that the way they can retaliate against me is limited, I guess.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned earlier the reaction to your essay. I’ll just ask you to elaborate. Was it as you expected? Was it bigger? Was it smaller? Why don’t you tell listeners a bit about the response that you’ve received so far?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: I was a bit shocked. The platform that Wesley Yang gave me—it’s quite a popular platform. That he actually asked me to write this in the first place, I was shocked. We interacted a bit on Twitter and he asked, “Hey, you want to write this? You can do it anonymously.” I said, “No, I’ll do it. Again, I’m going to come out in public if I’m going to do this because it actually gives me more protection if I’m speaking out internally anyway.” The reaction to that surprised me. It apparently had something like 10,000 views on the first day. Widely shared, that was surprising enough. What did surprise me honestly was that there was complete radio silence.

I did not get anybody who communicated with me to say, “I disagree with you but—”. The only people who contacted me were professors at other universities, professors at my universities, and people in para-academic disciplines, who are like, “Good on you for writing this. We support you. This is a brave thing to do.” No one is trying to reach out to me to have some dialogue. Probably they don’t want that.

They probably think that I did something terrible, I don’t know. I have no idea what the reaction is. That’s probably been the most surprising thing to me because we’re supposed to be able to, I think, discuss these issues and the fact that there’s no dialogue happening whatsoever in reaction to that piece is further confirmation of the climate that exists within the academy.

SEAN SPEER: Your essay ends somewhat pessimistically, so let me just ask you, do you anticipate that things will continue to move in the direction that you’ve outlined here and in your essay? Or is there reason for hope? Are there signs that students and faculty may be growing tired of this form of sanctioned speech?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: I know the students are and this is part of the reason why I was speaking up. Every now and then, before I even started speaking up publicly I guess students got the sense that I was not fully on board with this stuff, and they would come up to me to talk to me after class. One student said, “No, no I’m okay. I’m comfortable airing my views in your class because you’ve made this a safe space for me,” and used the safe space language. The guy identified as a Christian.

He’s expressing views that are outside of what I think would be the mainstream student view right now and for him to say that to me suggested that there’s a problem. The students, at least a subset of them, have definitely had enough although for them, they’re hoping to get through their law school education, get their law degree and move on. Is it really something that they’re going to stand up to? Not necessarily. This is the bigger problem I think, and this is why I’m less optimistic on the whole. Even if there are faculty members who are opposing this, they’re not probably going to say anything.

A lot of them are usually older, and the fact that I’m a young guy who’s objecting to this is odd. A lot of them are older and they’re just probably waiting to retire to cash their pensions or whatever and move on, institutionally. If there are broader social forces that are beginning to push back on this, there’s little going on inside the institution that encourages or that that’s encouraging from my perspective that suggests that there’s something that’s going to change.

In fact, all the incentives are in the opposite direction. The government funding agencies in Canada that fund most of the research happening in Canada are increasingly making diversity, equity, and inclusion, that trifecta, a requirement of funding applications. All these external incentives that, on top of the pressures that are already there from certain student groups, just is adding to the reasons for the university to follow this sort of approach.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask you a penultimate question. It’s now been over a year since this incident and you’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I think you mentioned before we got started you’ve even gone back and rewatched the lecture and the exchange because it was recorded via Zoom—one of the consequences of pandemic instruction. Do you have any regrets?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: Yes, actually I do. My one regret was that I waited till something happened for me to speak up about this. When the adjunct was being attacked for having said the N-word, there were letters going around. I had actually signed onto one of these letters in support of her, that one that never got published because the main authors retracted after the pushback.

At that point, I just said, “Fine maybe this is for the best. I’ll just stay quiet.” In retrospect, I should have pushed back. I should have publicly taken a stand to support her. So my one regret actually is that I didn’t speak up earlier.

SEAN SPEER: My final question is, in light of your experience and everything we’ve talked about today, do you still aspire to a future in the world of academia? Is your vocation still on a university campus?

STÉPHANE SÉRAFIN: That’s a very complicated question. The answer is yes, but only if it can be what it’s supposed to be. Which is why I don’t have any regrets because from my perspective if things keep going the way they are, if things don’t improve, then really the vocation isn’t there anyway. I might as well be doing something else. I would much prefer to pursue this, to keep going, to publish, to teach, but if I have to essentially swallow this ideology and be expected to keep quiet whenever something happens and some sort of excess reaction happens to something, then the vocation’s already gone. There’s no point.

SEAN SPEER: Well with that Stéphane Serafin I want to applaud you for making the decision to tell your story in the essay “How Ideological Coups Happen”. As you mentioned, listeners can find it at Wesley Yang’s personal substack, and I’d encourage them to read it. I want to thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues to talk a bit about your experience and what it may tell us about the current state of affairs on university campuses.