Last Wednesday, about a dozen protesters interrupted the class of professor Gary Dunphy, a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences. The protest was in response to allegations that surfaced in early April that Dunphy had repeatedly harassed, and made a death threat against Amr El-Orabi, a student he was supervising. The student claims that the harassment drove him to go back to Egypt out of fear. In September, the university ruled in favour of El-Orabi in the harassment case, a ruling that Professor Dunphy recently appealed. Although there is much controversy around this issue, the tactic of disrupting the class was an unconstructive form of protest.
This is not the first time the issue of class disruptions has surfaced. During the anti tuition-increase protests of 2011 and 2012, several departments in the Faculty of Arts held hastily arranged General Assemblies after the defeat of the strike vote in the heavily attended Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) General Assembly (GA). These guerilla GAs, in turn, successfully passed resolutions that were used as ‘mandates’ for a series of protests that disrupted classes in their departments, including the English department. At the time, this newspaper argued “any picketing done by those who do strike should not go so far as to deny other students’ right to education,” as such would constitute an act of hypocrisy. While we belive in the right to protest, and some aspects of the situation are different, the underlying principle remains the same; protests in the classroom cross the line.
The protest this past Wednesday was objectionable for a variety of reasons. From a purely strategic perspective, the protest was erratic and unfocused. While it ostensibly was about the allegations against Dunphy, the statement read during class also dealt at length with both the recent sexual assault allegations against the former members of the Redmen football team, as well as a complaint filed by a Social Work professor who claims he was victimized by what he termed “systemic racism”. This overly broad list of grievances gives the impression that the Dunphy case functioned more as a pretext for protest than the actual point of the protest.
Secondly, the protesters actively disrespected and antagonized the students in the class. When one of the students in the class challenged the protesters, complaining about the fact that they were interrupting a class they had paid to be in, a protester told the student to “go [expletive] yourself”. Aside from a matter of basic respect to fellow students, such conduct also alienates the protesters from garnering the support of the student body at large.
This stance on the efficacy and legitimacy of the Wednesday protest should not be taken as a statement on the substance of the allegations against Dunphy. There are real questions about his conduct towards El-Orabi, which will be sorted out in the appeal and possible civil action. However, much as we hold our instructors and professors to high standards, we should expect the same of our fellow students. Harassment and intimidation of students who happen to be enrolled in a course they may have had minimal choice in taking is a hypocritical response in protest of alleged harassment and intimidation. While these students’ actions are within their rights under both the Student Code of Conduct and broader protections of free expression, they represent a divisive form of protest that should not be encouraged.