Laurentian University’s response to antisemitic email to Jewish professor was appropriate: Arbitrator

The main entrance to Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. Photo: Google Streetview

Laurentian University’s overall response to a hateful antisemitic email sent to a Jewish professor by a member of the public was appropriate, an arbitrator has ruled.

The professor took issue with his employer’s response after a co-director of the university’s Equity, Diversity and Human Rights Office (EDHRO) called the email “inappropriate correspondence.”

The professor, RR, thought that language was dismissive of the serious nature of the hate-filled email.

University in spotlight over financial issues

On Feb. 21, 2021, Laurentian University filed for insolvency protection under the CCAA. As a result, 110 full-time positions in the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) were eliminated and 88 full-time members had their employment terminated.

The professor in this case, RR, was among those who lost his job.

The financial issues at the university, and the corresponding job losses, generated a lot of media attention — both locally and nationally. RR was a vocal critic of the university’s actions, and the responses from the provincial and federal governments to this crisis.

On April 26, 2021, RR published an opinion piece in the local press with the headline: “Universities are dying while businesses are being bailed out by government.”

Following publication, and while RR was still employed by Laurentian, he received two offensive antisemitic emails. One was sent to his personal email, the other to his university account. This grievance only considered the email sent to his work account. It contained the following passage:

“It’s great to watch the annihilation of these useless subjects and their even more useless instructors…. who have never produced a thing in their lives…. Laurentian was brought down by you and your trough-lapping colleagues….Your greedy demands should have been jewed down by the administration….Now fuck off”

Dean’s response

RR immediately brought the email to the attention of the IT department and the dean, via email. Within minutes, the dean responded in a manner that the union agreed was “sensitive and appropriate.”

The dean immediately sent the offensive email to the University’s Equity, Diversity and Human Rights Office (EDHRO). That office is responsible for preserving a safe and healthy working environment free from discrimination and harassment.

The university also began working to block the sender of the offensive email from the university’s servers.

The interim co-director of EDHRO responded via email, advising it would retain a copy of the email. The co-director also said: “I am sorry that you have received this inappropriate correspondence and please do let me know if we can be of any further assistance.”

On May 4, 2021, RR sent an email to the interim director — taking issue with that response.

“I do have one suggestion for you in your capacity as the interim Co-Director of university’s [Equity], Diversity and Human Rights Office: the next time a Jewish faculty member or student approaches you with a complaint that contains comments of an obviously antisemitic nature, please be more careful with your language, and do not label the hate crime as ‘inappropriate correspondence,'” wrote RR.

The co-director responded by thanking RR for the note and saying she would be “more mindful going forward.”

RR did not file a discrimination complaint under the university’s Respectful Workplace and Learning Policy and Procedure.

Union files grievance

On June 23, 2021, LUFA filed a grievance on behalf of RR alleging breaches of the collective agreement.

LUFA argued that the dean and IT responded appropriately, but EDHRO did not.

“Of particular concern is the labeling of the emails by an Equity and Human Rights Office Director as ‘inappropriate correspondence.’ Such labeling demonstrates a complete lack of understanding and concern respecting the content of the emails,” it said.

It characterized the EDHRO’s response as “flippant.” When RR raised his concern about the response, the problem was not appropriately addressed or responded to, it said. There was no apology and there was no proactive followup with RR to check on the impact of the email or to find ways to ameliorate its affect.

The employer acknowledged that the email was an awful thing for RR to experience. But, it said the university’s response was in accordance with its obligations pursuant to the collective agreement, its policy and the Human Rights Code and Occupational Health & Safety Act.

It also pointed out that the university had various polices and programs in place, including the Respectful Workplace and Learning Environment Program, to raise a complaint.

The decision

Both parties agreed the email breached RR’s right to a healthy workplace free from discrimination.

The arbitrator said it was appropriate to consider the overall response from all departments involved. In this case, that includes the dean, IT and the EDHRO.

The response from the dean was immediate and reflected appreciation of the breach of RR’s right to a discrimination-free workplace. The dean’s inclusion of IT and EDHRO in his reply demonstrated understanding that the university was required to take remedial action, it said.

“The fact that the Dean, the IT department, and the EDHRO communicated with each other and with (RR) is also supports the conclusion that the University’s administration understood and met its obligations to (RR),” the arbitrator said.

The responses from EDHRO did not undermine the appropriate steps taken.

“In characterizing the email as being ‘an inappropriate communication’ the Interim Co-Director used the mildest possible language to describe what was a hateful, antisemitic attack on the grievor. It did, however, recognize that the email was unacceptable,” the arbitrator said.

She showed empathy for the situation and offered to make herself available for further assistance, it said.

“While others might have responded in a different manner, there is no one right response,” the arbitrator said. “The one made by (EDHRO) falls within the range of reasonable and does not undermine the seriousness with which the hateful email sent to (RR) was responded to by the University.”

In conclusion, RR’s right to healthy working environment free from discrimination was breached by the hateful email he received from the external sender.

“However, the University had no role in sending this email and its actions in response were not in breach of their obligations,” it said. “When they were advised by (RR) of the hateful antisemitic email which he had received they recognized that it was a serious breach of his rights and took immediate steps to prevent further breaches.  They communicated the steps taken to (RR). He was also asked to notify them if he required further assistance.”

The grievance was dismissed.

For more information, see Laurentian University v Laurentian University Faculty Association, 2023 CanLII 21642 (ON LA)