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Globe editorial: Massey professor showed terrible judgment, but the response was worse

A senior fellow at a University of Toronto college made a stupid and hurtful racial comment to a black student last week and has been drummed out of his position. There is much to discuss here.

First, the comment. There is little dispute about what happened: Michael Marrus was sitting at lunch with three junior fellows at Massey College when the Master of the college joined them. Dr. Marrus turned to one of the students, who is black, and said, "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?"

It is easy to imagine how hurt the student was. To find oneself the target of a bad joke about plantation owners and their tortured slaves, delivered by someone you barely know, at one of Canada's leading academic institutions, would have been a deeply painful shock – one that absolutely required redress.

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Now, the redress. Dr. Marrus has been forced to resign after a petition signed by fewer than 200 U of T students and faculty called for his removal.

He has not been given an opportunity to defend himself, or to apologize directly to the student. Nor is anyone on campus willing to take into account his much-praised scholarship about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. That has been conveniently erased.

"I understand the anti-racist commitment of the people who have mobilized," he said – something he would do, of course, given that he is a Jewish scholar who has spent a lifetime studying one of the greatest acts of racism in history.

In short, Dr. Marrus has been treated unfairly, which is as unacceptable as the remark he made. He has not sought to exonerate himself, but he deserved the right to make amends, just as the petitioners deserved the right to complain.

Instead, the professor has been summarily exiled by a widespread on-campus climate of illiberality that can fairly be characterized by "its self-exoneration from any and all contradictions; and its contempt for precedent, conventions… and civility."

Those are Dr. Marrus's words, from a piece he wrote in The Globe and Mail last July. He was describing the subtler traits of totalitarianism.

As for Massey College, it has announced that its head will no longer be called "master," pending a search for another title, because the word, intended in this context to denote expertise – as in a Master of Arts degree – is presumed racist, and must be expelled.

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Oh the irony. As Massey College was purging itself of Dr. Marrus, the Invictus Games for wounded warriors were holding their closing ceremonies a few blocks away. The event is named after a 19th-century poem, whose final lines are, "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul." That is also the Invictus Games' motto.

The poem was Nelson Mandela's favourite and an inspiration to him during his long imprisonment, before becoming South Africa's first black president. In 2013, Barack Obama, America's first black president, speaking at Mr. Mandela's funeral, closed his eulogy by quoting its last stanza.

If only they'd been educated at Massey College.

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