WOLFVILLE – Students at Acadia have had a lot to say about psychology professor Rick Mehta, who has come under fire recently after a string of social media posts and discussions during his lectures on contentious political and social issues.
Mehta’s statements and topics of discussion have touched on his ideas that oppose the existence of the gender pay gap, the validity of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that multiculturalism is a scam.
He has garnered both supporters – with Dalhousie philosophy professor Tom Vinci writing a letter of support to Acadia – and opponents, including Juno award-winning Inuk musician Tanya Tagaq.
The Advertiser and Register spoke to four students, asking them what their thoughts were on Rick Mehta’s use of class time to discuss his ideas, along with whether they feel concerned freedom of speech is being staunched at Canadian universities.
Social, not legal consequences on horizon for prof
Ellen Torrie is a fourth-year music therapy major at Acadia, and says she disagrees with Mehta’s statements on a personal level.
As someone who has worked within indigenous communities and who identifies as a feminist, she feels strongly opposed to two major topics he’s challenged – the gender pay gap and the commission on Truth and Reconciliation.
“If you don’t take the time to understand that they do need and deserve compensation… it’s just a completely tone-deaf, offensive comment,” she says.
Torrie states that while she disagrees with the subject matter, she doesn’t believe comments made by Mehta should mean he loses his job.
She does, however, think he has lost many friends on campus, and that his supporters may not rise up should he be fired in the future.
“You may not face legal repercussions for your speech, but you will face social ones,” she says.
Discussing in class O.K., if neutral
Torrie says while she doesn’t see a problem with starting a neutral discussion on an important topic in class shouldn’t be an issue, she disagrees with Mehta’s specific statements.
“Bringing your own personal statement to class and asking, ‘what do you think?’ is problematic. He’s in a position of power, and students may feel afraid to speak out against that.”
On whether freedom of speech is being staunched at Canadian universities, Torrie feels torn. She agrees that people have the right to say what they think, but that a general awareness of avoiding topics that will make others feel hurt or unsafe is growing.
“Some speech hurts people, because it enforces ideas that push those who are oppressed farther down. If people say things that are totally baseless and will hurt other people, that is wrong,” she says.
“If that’s what freedom of speech means, I’m happy to sacrifice a bit of that. Everyone deserves to feel included, and safe.”
Not relevant, therefore not needed
Max Gallant is a second-year music student at the university.
He has never taken a course with Mehta, and while not familiar with the specific subject matter Mehta has brought up in class, doesn’t see why a professor would bring up subjects unrelated to pre-determined course material.
“I’m a music student, for example. So when I go to my theory course, I want to learn about theory,” he says.
“If the professor started talking about world issues and asking my opinion on them, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
He also feels an investigation is a fair way to go about looking into complaints issued by students on subject matter Mehta has discussed with students during lectures.
“If it’s an open investigation, and if enough students have made complaints, then it’s fair,” he says.
An international perspective on feminism
Niambi Landy, a third-year math and business student from Bermuda, says comments that hurt others are morally wrong, and shouldn’t be said in a university setting.
She also feels comments attacking feminism are not only offensive, but baseless.
“You shouldn’t say things that belittle a large portion of Acadia’s population – female students.
I don’t think that’s right,” she says.
She also disagrees with Mehta’s use of class time to discuss topics with students that don’t relate directly to lecture materials.
“I pay to sit and listen in that class. Don’t use my time I paid for to talk about that either,” she says.
She and friend Shelby Seymour, a third-year business and math student from the Bahamas, agree that freedom of speech is not limited on campuses. Landy wrote an opinion piece for the campus’ Athenaeum newspaper and didn’t get any feedback asking her to keep her opinions to herself.
But they do agree there is a moral line people should not cross when speaking their minds.
“You can have your own opinions on things without discriminating. You also don’t have to make it seem like it’s the right thing, or force it on others,” says Seymour.