Massey College, an independent residential college affiliated with the University of Toronto, has temporarily suspended the formal title of "master" to refer to its head, and apologized for an incident earlier this week that deeply offended and hurt members of the school.
"The remarks made this week by a member of our community were completely inappropriate and I deeply regret the distress they caused to members of our community," said Hugh Segal, the head of the college, in a statement. In addition, the University of Toronto has issued a statement condemning the "deeply offensive remarks."
The incident happened at a lunch that was attended by three junior fellows of Massey and emeritus history professor Michael Marrus, a senior fellow.
Hugh Segal, the head of the college, who has the formal title "master," decided to join the table. At that moment, Dr. Marrus remarked to a black junior fellow: "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?"
Dr. Marrus, a noted scholar of the Holocaust, who is retired from the university but has a senior fellowship at Massey College, has not commented on the lunch. The students at the table have also not spoken out about their feelings and thoughts at that moment, but have lodged a written complaint with the college.
A petition supporting the students was signed by almost 200 faculty and students at the university. It asked for a formal public apology from the institution, the replacement of the title of master, and anti-racist training for all members of the Massey community.
"In our eyes, the very legitimacy of Massey College hinges on the effectiveness of your response to this incident," the petition stated. "We encourage you to approach this moment with the seriousness it demands, and with the courage and vision to make this an occasion for fulsome transformation."
The petition also demanded that the college sever ties with Dr. Marrus. That is the only action the college has not taken.
"Words and statements like these in no way reflect the position of Massey College as a whole," Mr. Segal said in a statement sent late Friday to members of the college. "There is no place for overt, jocular or subtle racism here," he wrote.
Others at the college said they will work on anti-racism initiatives: We "are deeply saddened by the incident," said a statement from the Diversity Committee sent to The Globe and Mail. "We will work with the administration to ensure justice is served, that this incident doesn't happen again and all options are explored to achieve this objective."
A task force at the college had already been examining whether the school should drop the title of master. A permanent decision will be made once the task force releases its findings. But Mr. Segal said he would not be opposed to such a change.
"The term is tied to Oxbridge and the idea of master of one's craft or art, not a master-slave reference. But we should be open to revision if it is no longer appropriate," he said in an interview.
The title "has been associated with violence and the 'lash' in this week's incident. "Head of College" will be what my post should be called until the task force of the governing board can agree on an appropriate and permanent title …," he explained in his statement to the Massey community.
John Fraser, a master of the college for 19 years, said he also believes the title is no longer useful.
"If it has become such a divisive issue, it should be removed," Mr. Fraser said. "We can talk to the moon about the origins and that it was not racist, but my view is that if it hinders the college from doing what it does best, then they should do away with it," he said.
Massey is governed by a board that is independent of the University of Toronto, but U of T has also offered to help the college with its diversity training.
The "remarks are absolutely incompatible with the University of Toronto's commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, and with our goal of providing an environment for our students, faculty and staff that is free of racism and other forms of discrimination," said Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T's vice-president of human resources and equity.
Dr. Marrus is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the author of eight books on the Holocaust including The Holocaust in History, Lessons of the Holocaust and co-author of Vichy France and the Jews, and a former dean of the U of T's school of graduate studies.
Massey College was established in 1962 and its first master was author, critic and professor Robertson Davies.