York University professors who refused student's request to be separated from female classmates brock "obligation to accommodate": officials

January 2014

After refusing to honour a male student’s request to be separated from his female classmates for religious reasons, a York University professor has found himself at odds with administrators who assert he broke their “obligation to accommodate.”

“It represents a great leap backwards,” said sociology professor J. Paul Grayson. “When I was a student, you couldn’t have gotten away with that — it wouldn’t even have been considered.”

The issue arose last September in the opening days of SOCI 2030, an online course taught by Mr. Grayson.

A student, who remains nameless due to privacy reasons, asked to be counted out of a scheduled group project due to the course’s heavy preponderance of female students.

“One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women,” he wrote, adding “it will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.”

The unusual request immediately troubled the professor. In a 12-page paper documenting the episode, he expressed his worry about becoming an “accessory to sexism” and, in a letter to the campus’ Centre for Human Rights, declared “I doubt that we would sanction a student refusing, for religious reasons, to interact with Blacks in classes even though Biblical

justification could be found.”

Throughout, the student never revealed his religion, prompting Mr. Grayson to guess that he followed either Islam or Orthodox Judaism.

The professor ran the student’s initial memo past a Judaic scholar and two Islamic scholars, all of whom were puzzled by the request.

The Judaic scholar found no problem with an Orthodox Jew attending a co-ed group session. One of the Islamic scholars, in turn, declared simply, “unless he is asked to be physical with a female student, which I assume he isn’t, there is absolutely no justification for not interacting with females in public space.”

Mr. Grayson’s colleagues appeared to agree. At an October departmental meeting they passed a resolution forbidding any religious accommodations that contributed to the “marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants.”

After getting wind of the resolution — as well as Mr. Grayson’s stated refusal to honour his accommodation - the student cheerfully backed off.

He attended the group session without protest and even wrote a memo to Mr. Grayson thanking him “for the way you have handled this request.”

“He’s a reasonable guy,” said Mr. Grayson.

Nevertheless, the rejection incensed university brass. According to Mr. Grayson, on October 18, he received a letter from the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies ordering him to accommodate the student’s wishes.

As per documents provided by the professor, one of the keystones of the Dean’s position is the assertion that allowing the student to opt out of female interaction would not affect the “experience of other students in the class”—provided the professor kept quiet about it.

In an October 18 email, the Dean specifically told Mr. Grayson that if he was worried about the “course experience of our female students” he would make sure they “are not made aware of the accommodation.”

Instead, like a true sociologist, Mr. Grayson presented a hypothetical version to one of his other classes and gauged their reaction via survey.

The response confirmed his suspicions. Female students in particular reacted with outrage and even threats of legal action.

“What if the male student asked that the women be seated at the back of the class or on the other side of a partition so that he would not have to see them?” wrote one.

Another turned the request around.

“Men are known to sexually harass females, therefore I will not participate in any group work that a male is involved in within this class, I expect to be placed with only females,” she wrote. “Silly, right? This situation is the exact same.”

The Dean dismissed the November survey, saying he was not “persuaded that other students’ political views on the subject are either a relevant or an appropriate consideration.”

“I am unpersuaded that it is even arguable that the non-participation of this one male student in group work affects in any way any other student’s human rights,” he wrote.

As York’s winter semester kicks off, said Mr. Grayson, the order is still standing.

“There’s been no reversal of position,” he said.