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Massey College principal, disaffiliated members respond to Margaret Wente appointment controversy

Black MD student turns down junior fellowship, college to review selection process, address anti-Black racism
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Massey College faced backlash for appointing Margaret Wente. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY
Massey College faced backlash for appointing Margaret Wente. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

Last month, Massey College faced significant backlash from faculty and staff at U of T after appointing Margaret Wente as a member of the Quadrangle Society. Wente has long faced criticisms for plagiarism, as well as racism, anti-feminism, and transphobia, in her writings as a columnist for The Globe and Mail

Following Wente’s appointment, three faculty members resigned from their senior fellowships at Massey College. The Varsity followed up on the story with two of those resigned members, Professor George Dei and Professor Rick Halpern, as well as Seana Adams, an MD candidate who turned down a junior fellowship due to the appointment; and Massey College Principal Nathalie Des Rosiers. 

After Massey College indicated that it would review the appointment, Wente ultimately resigned from her position at Massey College, later criticizing in a Quillette opinion article that the institution acquiesced to the “mob” that demanded her removal. Des Rosiers disputed this characterization, noting that Wente’s record does not reflect Massey College’s values, and attributed her appointment to a flawed selection process owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reactions from resigned faculty members

Dei, a professor of social justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) who works on research for anti-racism education, resigned as senior fellow from Massey following Wente’s appointment. Dei did not speak about the case of Wente specifically, instead asserting that racism exists everywhere and not just at Massey. 

“We need our universities/institutions of higher learning to be proactive and lead the way to build and restore community trust and faith in our learners,” Dei wrote in an email to The Varsity

Halpern, a history professor who had been a senior fellow at Massey College since the early 2000s, chose to resign after the initial resignation of Alissa Trotz, Director of the Women & Gender Studies Institute, who had been a senior fellow and member of the Governing Board at Massey College. 

Halpern criticized the college for appointing Wente without seriously investigating her background and said that it “makes the University of Toronto look bad.” He recalled that colleagues from other universities contacted him in response to Wente’s appointment, expressing shock that the University of Toronto would allow Wente’s appointment, though Massey College is a separate institution. 

Historian and professor Margaret MacMillan also recently announced her resignation from her senior fellowship at Massey College, although apparently for different reasons from other professors. According to The Star, MacMillan did not offer a reason for her resignation, though Des Rosiers said that the resignation was in response to the college’s decision to review Wente’s appointment after an intense backlash from the public. 

Black student turns down junior fellowship

MD candidate Seana Adams was offered a position as a junior fellow for Massey College and decided to turn it down. In an email to The Varsity, Adams explained that she had planned to carry out research on Black mental health during her fellowship. 

After the appointment of Wente and conversations with current Massey College students, she felt her position would be a “display of tokenism” — the practice of hiring only a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to appear more diverse. Adams felt her work “would have been done in vain.” 

“The equity initiatives that I could be implementing would reflect back well on Massey, yet after speaking to current students, I truly do not think that their current and past actions demonstrate a genuine desire to engage in allyship nor anti-Black racism initiatives,” Adams wrote. She expressed hope that Massey College would work to be more inclusive of Black and Indigenous people. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Des Rosiers expressed sadness that Adams would not be carrying out a junior fellowship and contested the claim that her place at the college would have been a display of tokenism. 

Des Rosiers pointed to the diversity of the incoming group of junior fellows, 50 per cent of whom self-identify as visible minorities. A total of seven per cent identified as a person with a disability, zero per cent identified as Indigenous, and 17 per cent identified as LGBTQ+.  

“We’re very proud of the fact that we have a diverse junior fellowship,” Des Rosiers said.

Des Rosier responds to Wente’s criticisms 

In her Quillette article, Wente responded to the backlash against her appointment at Massey College, which she termed as her “cancelation.” The word ‘cancelled’ in popular culture refers to the phenomenon of an individual losing the support of the public because of actions or comments that are deemed inappropriate or offensive.

Wente criticized Massey College for “cowardice” in “[caving] to a mob,” claiming that the college’s decision to review her appointment due to backlash contradicted its commitment to free speech. 

In response to allegations of plagiarism, Wente did concede to failing to “attribute material to other sources” and sharing “controversial—or at least what passes for controversial in this country” opinions during her work as a columnist for The Globe and Mail

Des Rosiers disagreed with Wente’s “mob” characterization. She explained that the process of selecting Wente was not conducted in “ideal circumstances,” which included closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Des Rosiers claims that this context hindered the selection committee from discussing her appointment as fully as it would have normally.

She also disputed Wente’s claim that the Quadrangle Society is just a “jumped-up book club,” saying that the article “confirmed [her] assessment that [Wente] was not the right fit for Massey college, because the Quadrangle Society is there to support the junior fellowships.”

Des Rosiers said that she does not believe Wente’s values align with those of Massey College, specifically pointing to the accusations of plagiarism against her. She confirmed Wente’s claim that she was unaware of Wente’s “chequered reputation” before her appointment, though she said that other people at the college were aware. 

According to Des Rosiers, Massey College will be conducting a review of its code of conduct. It will also add additional programs to address anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination. 

Margaret MacMillan declined The Varsity’s request for comment.

Editor’s Note (August 27, 8:41 pm): This article has been corrected to remove claims that Wente was appointed as a senior fellow at Massey College. The Varsity has learned that Wente was only appointed as a member of the Quadrangle Society. Des Rosiers’ comment has also been edited to reflect that Massey College will be reviewing its code of conduct, not its selection policies for senior fellows and the Quadrangle Society.