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Jordan Peterson creating climate of ‘fear and intimidation’: U of T’s faculty association

A volunteer hands out a leaflet explaining gender issues and language at a rally held outside the Sidney Smith Hall at the University of Toronto on Oct. 5, 2016. Several hundred students attended the rally protesting the views of professor Jordan Peterson.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A plan by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson to launch a website that would allow students to identify leftist faculty has "created a climate of fear and intimidation" and is a "threat to [professors] and to the academic mission of the University," the school's faculty association says.

In a statement released on Friday afternoon, the association demanded a meeting between its executive members and University of Toronto provost Cheryl Regehr to express their deep concern. Asking for such a meeting is an "unprecedented step," the statement says.

The faculty association's comments came days after professors from the school's Women and Gender Studies Institute (WGSI) sent a letter to university administrators and student leaders detailing Dr. Peterson's plans to start a site that identifies faculty and course reading lists that are what he calls "postmodern."

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But Dr. Peterson said the concern is premature, as he has not yet launched the site. "No such site exists, and the site was only trying to provide people with information," he said in an interview.

Dr. Peterson has gained a high profile over the past 18 months for his criticism of what he believes is the dominance of Marxism, socialism and postmodernist ideas among university professors and students.

In the United States, a political advocacy group runs a website called Professor Watchlist that seeks to advance right-wing and libertarian ideas on college campuses. A professor in California who was identified on Professor Watchlist as having a "radical agenda" went into hiding after she received death threats, according to media reports.

The WGSI document says such a site here would present "a serious case of harassment, fostering unsafe work and study conditions for students, faculty, and staff. … [We] take the potential threat posed by this website as a serious occupational safety and harassment issue."

The site would exacerbate fears on campus after the WGSI and its staff received online threats targeting feminists, and raise tensions related to anti-black racism incidents, the letter adds.

"We strongly request that action is taken by university leadership to proactively prevent this harassment before it begins," the letter says.

Together, the two documents will put extraordinary pressure on the University of Toronto to address concerns on campus about Dr. Peterson's opinions. The public statement from the university's faculty association is an anomaly in the group's long tradition of resolving concerns through private discussions with the administration.

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"We are aware of the issues [the letter] raises and we are meeting with faculty to hear their concern," a spokesperson for the university said.

Dr. Peterson, who is a tenured psychology professor, runs an online and video empire netting tens of thousands of dollars in monthly donations from fans who support his criticism of the university system. He has been accused of encouraging the harassment of his critics through tweets and social-media postings.

He first gained renown for his public opposition to Bill C-16, which added protection of gender identity and expression to human rights and hate-crime laws. In the months since, Dr. Peterson has become a frequent flashpoint for campus protests when he has been invited to speak.

He said he is aware of the potential risks to launching such a site.

"It's tricky because of the amplifying effect of social media, and because the effects of social media are not exactly predictable," he said. "I've had qualms about whether or not to do this, which is why I haven't done it. ... I've been sitting on it trying to feel my way through it to determine where the proper ethical line lies because I think it's wrong to increase polarization, because it's dangerous. But I also think it's wrong to inflict upon students, who don't know any better, corrupt ideology."

The goal of identifying "postmodern" faculty members is to eliminate their courses, according to transcripts of remarks Dr. Peterson has made that were included with the letter.

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"I would like to knock enrolment in the postmodern disciplines down by 75 per cent over the next five years," he says in a YouTube video.

Dr. Peterson seems to suggest universities should teach a limited set of disciplines. Social sciences, law and humanities have all been infected by postmodernism, he says, as well as women's studies and ethnic and racial studies.

The website would aim to be a means of accomplishing that. He claims in another video that a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence has created a program that will classify text entered by users as postmodern or not.

"[You] can decide for yourself whether you want to take [a postmodernist course] and become a social justice warrior … or if you should avoid that like the plague that it truly is," he says.

Dr. Peterson is on leave from U of T this year and is not teaching courses.

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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