National Post

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Christian 'exposed to contempt'

Lawsuit accuses UBC professors of discrimination based on religion

Francine Dubé
National Post

Nick Didlick, National Post
Graduate student Cynthia Maughan says she was the victim of an orchestrated campaign by professors to discredit her after she appealed an English grade.

An Anglican who refused to attend a Sunday seminar in the home of a classmate who disparaged Christians is suing the University of British Columbia, alleging professors and administrators discriminated against her on religious grounds.

"She was exposed to hatred and contempt," reads the lawsuit, filed yesterday in the British Columbia Supreme Court on behalf of Cynthia Maughan, 43, a graduate student in UBC's English department.

Lorraine Weir, who last made the news when she defended the writings of child pornographer John Robin Sharpe in court, is one of four people named in the suit. Also named are Susanna Egan, formerly associate head of the department of English and graduate chairwoman of the department of English and now a professor; Anne Scott, a French professor; and Judy Segal, an English professor.

The allegations have not been proven in court. The university has 21 days to provide a statement of defence, but can apply to extend that deadline.

Professor Gernot Wieland, current head of UBC's English department, admitted that certain members of the department used inappropriate language when dealing with Ms. Maughan and her complaint, adding that the incident has "sensitized us" and "made us more aware that there are certain limits and that we have to be a little more careful in our language."

But he said there was absolutely no pattern of discrimination, as alleged by Ms. Maughan.

"Certainly not," he said. "We have a large intercultural population here, so yes, we are very sensitive to that."

The statement of claim is the latest, heated volley in a dispute that stretches back to November, 2000, and made its way to UBC's Senate Committee on Appeals on Academic Standing last spring.

The senate dismissed Ms. Maughan's appeal to have her mark in Prof. Weir's graduate English seminar raised to 79% from 73%. It also rejected her argument that she had been penalized for not attending a class on Sunday despite her stated objection to meeting on a religious holiday.

But it unanimously concluded that the department of English, in responding to Ms. Maughan's appeal, "mounted an irrelevant and unseemly attack upon [her] character for mental and emotional stability and for religious tolerance.

"The Senate Committee felt that such an attack on your character embarrassed the university, and descended well beneath the current standards of Charter values. The Senate Committee observes that this departmental attack was inexcusable even though it arose in the context of an unusually acrimonious appeal in which the appeal documents showed mutual baiting between yourself and the instructor," reads the senate decision.

It is this attack that Ms. Maughan's Calgary-based lawyer, Gerald Chipeur, says violated her rights. The lawsuit alleges that when Ms. Maughan exercised her right to appeal the final grade she received in English 553, Prof. Weir launched a campaign to discredit Ms. Maughan.

According to the lawsuit, Prof. Weir actively solicited personal criticisms of Ms. Maughan from others, including Kathleen Mell, a PhD student under her supervision, and Profs. Scott and Segal, which were written on letterhead from their respective departments.

Prof. Segal's letter refers to Ms. Maughan as "unstable." The letter from Prof. Scott characterizes her behaviour as "threats and terrorism."

Comments written by Prof. Weir in the margins of Ms. Maughan's papers were outside the norm of acceptable discourse, the lawsuit alleges.

"My impression is that in the end the seminar challenged everything you hold dear -- a situation which makes systematic inquiry very difficult," wrote Prof. Weir on an essay in March.

Ms. Maughan's final paper received this comment from Prof. Weir: "The fact that this paper is, unfortunately, yet another manifestation of your agenda of resistance in this course makes it even more difficult to assess in the context of overall performance in the course."

The lawsuit accuses Prof. Egan of having acted improperly by hearing Ms. Maughan's first appeal of her mark and then going on to become "a partisan, aggressive and officious advocate against the plaintiff, particularly at the plaintiff's final appeal before the UBC Senate."

Mr. Chipeur is alleging that Prof. Weir came to discriminate against Ms. Maughan because she refused to accept Prof. Weir's belief that religion and European culture are responsible for many of the evils within society.

"When Cynthia did not come to that conclusion as a result of the class, then I think Prof. Weir decided that Cynthia had an agenda of resistance to what she was trying to teach her and she was not going to accept Cynthia's failure to go along with her view of life," Mr. Chipeur said.

The senate committee pointed out that Ms. Maughan at times behaved badly as well, provoking her professor by mocking the quality of the course. "Each of you cast aspersions on the other, giving pretty much as good as you got," the senate committee concluded.

Although Ms. Maughan says she did not intend her final paper as any kind of attack on her professor, and although the subject matter makes it difficult to penetrate, Ms. Maughan does appear to be needling Prof. Weir, making frequent references to the course and the course's requirements in her essay.

"One needs to know how to respond if one is being sold a bill of goods called a seminar or one is being given a seminar," she wrote.

Ms. Maughan says her problems with the class were rooted in an exchange on the department's e-mail "list-server" in November, 2000, which was maintained by Prof. Egan. An 11-page document was posted, highly critical of the Canadian Alliance party. It contained a joke about making Jesus Christ House Speaker and paying the Virgin Mary to appear at Tim Hortons outlets.

A discussion on the list-server ensued, including a remark from one student about then leader Stockwell Day which read, "Screw respect. He makes me recall fondly a time period when Christians were stoned."

Ms. Maughan protested the remark, and she says that although several other students also joined her in protest, the student never backed down from his statement.

Then, in January 2001, the two ended up in Professor Weir's English 553, Strategies in Literary Theory. The topic of the course was 'The Proper' -- From Derrida (the French philosopher and inventor of Deconstructionism) to Delgamuukw (the Supreme Court of Canada decision asserting native claim to traditional lands for which no treaty has been signed.)

"For Joyce, names are numbing agents, signs of the anesthetizing process which enables the inscription of the self as property, the entry into the civil order of propriety," began the course syllabus. It attracted 25 students the first day, according to Ms. Maughan. About 11 remained after three weeks.

Ms. Maughan was one of them. She had taken an undergraduate course with Prof. Weir and had enjoyed both the course material and Prof. Weir's teaching. The relationship between the two was cordial enough that Prof. Weir had been a reference for Ms. Maughan when she applied to graduate school.

Ms. Maughan remembers feeling no acrimony toward the student who had posted the message about stoning Christians, but after the class decided on Jan. 16 to hold a colloquium in his home on a Sunday, she felt that as a practising Christian she could not attend.

She complained repeatedly to Prof. Weir before receiving a reply on Feb 3. Prof. Weir turned down her request, pointing out that the date and location had been chosen after extensive in-class discussions that had included Ms. Maughan, and could not be renegotiated.

Instead, Prof. Weir suggested that Ms. Maughan submit her colloquium paper in conventional printed form, and she would assess it in the usual way. She pointed out that there was no participation grade attached to the seminar.

In the meantime, tensions had erupted in the classroom. On Jan. 30, a comparison of the Holy Eucharist to an act of cannibalism angered Ms. Maughan, who felt it was based on sloppy scholarship -- either a misinterpretation or inaccurate translation of a passage from the Bible.

Ms. Mell's letter, allegedly solicited by Prof. Weir, said that Ms. Maughan became noticeably upset during the class, "making members of the class uncomfortable," and from that time on never said another word in class.

"For the following weeks of the semester Cynthia sat in the class remaining silent as a form of protest. I should also mention that this was a small class and therefore it was extremely painful to the rest of us to have this one presence in the room who weighed on every conversation by her sheer refusal to speak," Ms. Mell wrote.

Ms. Maughan says she sent an e-mail to Prof. Weir in advance, asking if she could remain silent during the seminar. Prof. Weir said yes. "I felt that was the most astute thing for me to do to avoid any further unhappiness," Ms. Maughan said.

As the course progressed, Ms. Maughan said she began to feel "devastated and demoralized."

When she received her final paper back from Prof. Weir with the remark about "agenda of resistance," she said she knew she had to fight back, even though she does not attend church every Sunday or refrain from such things as studying or shopping on the Sabbath.

"I knew from that moment, this is a large issue. It isn't that Prof. Weir said this to me in a moment on a bad day. She put this in writing on my paper and for the record. It has propelled me knowing that this is something that Prof. Weir clearly believed it was her right to do, that not attending on Sunday was an agenda of resistance."

Profs. Weir, Egan, Scott and Segal did not return calls for comment.

Copyright © 2002 National Post Online