The Gray Area

In 2017, active discussions were had about former Acadia University Professor Dr. Rick Mehta. In short: Dr. Mehta was a tenured professor at Acadia, teaching various courses -specifically introductory- within the psychology department. The matter was handled with deep concern after multiple students and faculty made formal complaints against Dr Mehta. Cases revolved around his lack of professionalism to students and not following the course material within his contract. In other words, Dr Mehta was using his position of power to enforce his views on first year students. This was evident in classes, recordings and midterms. Questions would be asked on midterms or quizzes about the statistical information taught in lectures centering his personal ideology. Dr. Mehta has argued against these claims. He is an advocate for free speech on campus.

Dr. Mehta felt his right to express his views within the classroom were violated by the university and has made his issues with the administration public by uploading every update to his social media.

On September 16th, 2019 Dr. Rick Mehta, gave a public lecture titled: “Safe Space Culture in Canadian Universities: An assault on democracy”, at the Al Whittle theatre. Before the lecture, a member of the board of directors addressed us on the conditions of Dr. Mehta’s lecture. The Board had reserved the right to cut off and impose a lifetime ban on Dr. Mehta if he violated the terms of the contract. The director made it clear that the institution is in no way supporting Dr. Mehta and promised to donate the money acquired to charity. Many students had attended this event for a variety of reasons, curiosity, support, and or as whistle blowers to his claims.

Dr. Mehta emphasized his certainty of the lecture being interrupted and yet, he wasn’t bothered. Dr. Mehta mentioned that he put in a request for his lecture to be held on campus but was effectively stonewalled. His email had been blocked and the mail he mailed to Acadia had somehow not been delivered. He went on to let us know how he was escorted off the university premises by the director of Safety and Security Patrick Difford. It was clear Dr. Mehta felt anger and resentment towards the University.  Before I carry on with the article, I would like to point out that the entirety of his lecture had no theoretical framework, and quickly went from a ‘talk’ to a rant about Acadia and his department. This article is based on what he presented and my ability to make it coherent is limited. The lecture was also inconsistent and did not follow the theme presented in the title.

After this introduction, Dr. Mehta went ahead to deny the confidentiality of the information he shared despite the ruling of the arbitrator. He went on to defend his controversial tweets and statements noting them as dissentious and not hateful. After he recounted the events that led to his controversial status, the presentation began with a brief description of what had happened and his history here at Acadia. The first part was a bio about the university, awards he had won, positive and negative course evaluations etc. Dr. Mehta related his feedback and how he applied this outlook towards life in general.

In course evaluations, you are critiqued by your student and with such critiques, you are expected to make changes, or at least have some form of self-reflection. He likened his ‘dissentious’ activities to his course evaluations.

Dr. Mehta went on to point out the problematic aspects of our new culture. He called to question the self-esteem movement, which began in the 1970s. According to Mehta, high self- esteem became the core premise of good psychological adjustments, which then led to the build- up of an individual’s self-esteem in the absence of merit. Mehta believe this has led to lower standards of education from the elementary and high schools, which in turn bleeds into post-secondary institutions. This decline in educational standards has forced universities to adopt a corporate model for education and have moved from a place of learning to one of degree distributions.

Dr. Mehta went on to present data that showcased a trend in the political ideology of professors. According to the data presented more professors in universities tend to lean left. The number of professors differ from discipline to discipline with more left-leaning professors within Art and Humanities programs i.e. Political Science, Sociology, Women and Gender Studies etc. From what I could gather, Dr. Mehta saw left leaning professors as negative and argued that political diversity did not exist.

He went on to link this data with the changing face of universities, which according to Mehta is one of the social justice ideologies that are the latter days of just truth-seeking. He believes that social justice worsens for refusing to accept counter arguments, not because they are without merit, but because they ultimately do not want to hear the other side or another perspective. Dr. Mehta stats that left-leaning arguments are based on emotion and in turn utilizing the primitive brain centers. He also adds that identity politics are nothing more than tribalism and referred to white supremacy as non-existent in today’s world. He explained his reasoning and philosophy by the use of the pyramid of white supremacy (for those interested in what it looks like, here is a link: 1-Pyramid-of-White-Supremacy.pdf )

After those statements, Dr. Mehta continued with his lecture by using a clear personal route. The presentation started to focus more on his own personal experience with safe space culture, identity politics and his right to dissent, rather than his theoretical framework or research defending his views on safe space culture and identity politics. He was quick to place blame on unions (Student Union, Labour Union, and Acadia University) referring to them as false marketers for worker’s rights and his own individual rights as a person. He not only placed blame on the union itself but proceeded to actively name Professors that in his opinion were failed by their union and dismissed wrongfully within the past 30 years.

To prove he wasn’t alone in this wrongful dismissal, he made mention of a previous tenured professor who had been dismissed in the ’90s but did not name the professor. It’s also wasn’t clear why this professor was wrongfully dismissed or what the details pertaining to the dismissal were.

Dr Mehta proceeded to define workplace mobbing and that he had been a victim within the Psychology department

He not so subtly implied that he had been the target in a departmental collusion, a witch hunt if you will. Towards the end of his presentation he made mention of accolades which he had received during his fourteen years as a professor, and was cut off because he breached his contract when photos of individuals were shared.

The title of this article: the gray area, reflects the dissent because it is indeed a gray area. Dissent is needed in a democracy, it keeps institutions and people alike on their toes, but why is this then a gray area? With Dissent often comes conflict. Some individuals are dead set on their opinions and when challenged, an argument often ensues. There is nothing wrong with having different forms of opinions particularly in a learning institution. By which there is no doubt of exploring new ways of thinking and open discussion. This helps us think critically, face inconsistencies within our arguments. In Canada, individuals are granted a right to dissent and freedom of expression (within certain legalities). You can speak your mind and know that there will be no government percussion. Keep in mind that it is well within our right to dissent your reason of dissent because I am exercising my right. Dr. Rick Mehta can say whatever he wants to say, it is well within his rights. People have, in turn, taken issue with what and how he has chosen to dissent. Whether or not he should have been fired will always be debated, but that is not why I am writing this article. Dr. Rick Mehta is a perfect reminder of the limitations we do have in our right to dissent of our freedom of expression. What happens when your dissent starts to make individuals feel unsafe? Safe space culture according to Dr. Mehta is one that constitutes equity, inclusion, and diversity, but that is not how I would define a safe space culture.

A safe space is a place where an individual can live their daily lives without fear. I do not see safe spaces as places to be just comfortable in. I believe an individual can exist in a variety of safe spaces and I also recognize that not everyone feels secure in every space. Safety is also not limited to the physical. The issue was clear: here is a professor who had a position of power teaching a class that was required and resulted in students feeling unsafe.

He exercised his freedom of expression and made people feel uncomfortable, questioning their existence and right to education. Which in that case trumps his version of freedom of expression.

The individuals in the audience who protested his tenure exercised their rights by doing so. This is the gray area that exists in dissent and freedom of expression alike. You can say what you want but you cannot control how people react. Many of Dr. Mehta’s comments have been classified as hate speech and in contrast to freedom of expression this is not allowed within our constitution. There is no objectivity in what we can or cannot say, but I do urge students to use their voices within reason and remember that there are gray areas to his lecture and that freedom of expression will not always protect you from accountability.