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Openmind
June 8, 2018+Jeremy Willinger

HxA Open Mind Award Winner: Lindsay Shepherd

Some read about censorship and orthodoxy on campus and become champions of viewpoint diversity. Others do so having personally experienced censorship and orthodoxy, and endured their harsh effects.

In the fall of 2017, Shepherd was a 22-year-old graduate student pursuing her M.A. in Cultural Analysis and Social Theory at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Ontario. She was also a teaching assistant for a course titled Canadian Communication in Context. Shepherd looked forward to challenging her students to see various sides of an issue. In class, she screened several minutes of a TVOntario program in which University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson questioned the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Little did she know the extent to which this simple decision would impact her academic career.

Shepherd was summoned by school officials for violating WLU’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. She surreptitiously recorded the meeting where senior members of her department criticized her teaching and choice of TV clip. She responded by pointing out that the mission of higher education is the pursuit of truth and, thus, the institution itself is meant to expose students to multiple perspectives. (Listen to the recording for yourself online).

When Shepherd made the recording public, the public was shocked, and perhaps because of that public reaction, ultimately, no punishment was issued. “In fact,” read an independent fact-finding report,“ the meeting never should have happened at all. No formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video.” Both the president of the university and the administrator from the meeting issued apologies to Lindsay.

From the professor’s apology: “…this entire occasion, and hearing from so many with passionate views on this issue from across the political spectrum, has made me seriously rethink some of the positions I took in the meeting. …Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought.”

The president’s apology included this key passage, removing all culpability from Shepherd: “After listening to this recording, an apology is in order. The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires. I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd.”

Amidst the story of controversy that enveloped WLU, Shepherd did some deep soul searching. Many in her position would have resigned from the teaching assistant position, acquiescing or otherwise altering their educational strategies. But Shepherd did the opposite. She doubled down on her commitment to viewpoint diversity, refusing to change her methods.

She embraced her new public platform, spotting an opportunity to push forward ideas involving constructive disagreement. She joined HxA as a Graduate Student Affiliate and formed the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, through which she launched an “Unpopular Opinion” speaker series. Her Twitter account now has more than 60,000 followers.

While Shepherd has already received high praise from a number of leading media outlets and prominent individuals, she can now add the HxA Open Mind Outstanding Graduate Student award as an accolade for her dedication to viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement, and mutual understanding.

On learning that she is receiving the award, Shepherd said, “It is an incredible honour to receive this prestigious award from Heterodox Academy. Heterodox Academy is so important because they genuinely seek to bridge divides and promote the rather simple idea that understanding one another and exploring different perspectives in a civil manner is key to enhancing our intellectual lives. I will keep working towards creating a culture of viewpoint diversity on campus, knowing that there is an amazing network of scholars and graduate students working towards the same goal.”

We look forward to seeing all of her future initiatives.

See the entire group of HxA Open Mind Award winners >>

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