Mark this week on your calendars. This is the week that religious accommodation at Canadian universities officially went too far.
University Affairs magazine reported this week that a professor at a major Canadian university was under fire after he denied the request of a student who, for religious reasons, refused to work in a group with female students. Today, we learn that the professor is J. Paul Grayson and his employer, York University, is now “incensed,” according to this National Post account.
As a professor, I wish I was surprised, but I’m not. Universities have for years been falling over themselves to place an insane notion of absolute accommodation ahead of all else. Perhaps the fallout from this latest blunder will finally convince our schools to start being more reasonable.
Accommodation as a guiding principle at universities began with the very best of intentions. I can scarcely believe my own memory when I look back at my undergraduate years and recall that it was nearly impossible for any student in a wheelchair to enter University College at the University of Western Ontario where most of my classes were held. The second floor of my own university library could be accessed by the disabled only with difficulty until just a few years ago. Blind students can now get recordings of their textbooks created for them, and the deaf can get written versions of lectures. We should be justly proud of these advances.
But none of these is analogous to the religious student who believes God doesn’t want him doing sociology with girls. (Professor Grayson, by the way, doesn’t even know which God that student prefers: he told the Toronto Star he suspects the student is either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish.)
The kinds of accommodations I mentioned above are all reasonable. What’s the difference between a reasonable and unreasonable accommodation? Here’s a start: reasonable accomodations are to be made when the student has no choice in the difficulty he faces.
The student who needs a wheelchair can’t choose to walk when she needs to. But the religious student, however he was raised, always has a choice because religion is a matter of belief. Even if many tend to hold to the religion they grew up with, as a matter of fact, people of every faith around the world make exceptions and compromises and favourable interpretations to get by. Plenty of Jews eat bacon, just as Catholics use birth control. Many Muslims drink alcohol, and Buddhists eat meat. This is to say nothing of the fact that increasingly people are seeing traditional religions as just that, traditions, and not statements of absolute truth.
Of course, if you want to stick to your guns and hold to an extreme version of your faith, that’s your right. And I will defend your right to your beliefs. And I can respect that you’re trying to live your life in a personally authentic way. But it is personal. And you can’t expect others to accommodate you. You have to accommodate them.
So I applaud Professor Grayson and I hope he sticks to his decision and is not cowed by university mandarins who seem to have lost sight of the demands of intellectual integrity. Happily, and perhaps ironically, the wave of criticism that York is sure to get on this may finally turn the tide and return accommodation to what it should be: providing a safe harbour, not throwing professors overboard.