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Political science department will not rescind controversial recipient’s scholarship following student backlash, demands

Arjun Singh’s public views alleged to contradict award’s goals of equity, inclusion
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Many elements of recent events suggested need for better practices. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Many elements of recent events suggested need for better practices. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

Content warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault, gender violence, and self-harm. 

The Department of Political Science at U of T announced on Thursday that, upon review, it will not be rescinding the David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship from recipient Arjun Singh. The review follows widespread student backlash against Singh receiving the award, including two petitions with roughly 5,000 signatures combined, as of time of publication, that have asked for the department to rescind the scholarship. 

The demands derive from allegations that public comments made by Singh, who has claimed that social justice is a bad idea,” are exclusionary and harmful to marginalized communities, and are therefore contrary to the aims of the scholarship, which focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

Singh denied the allegations in an email to The Varsity, claiming that his arguments “are neither sexist nor racist, nor as similarly characterized.”

According to the department’s webpage, the David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship is for students who have “enhanced inclusion of historically marginalized populations: for example racialized minorities, women, Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities, sexual minorities.” Given to nine recipients this year, the $1,000 scholarship considers “academic achievement and financial need.”

The scholarship’s application requires students to submit their transcript, a 300-word statement describing how their co-curricular activities promote the values of the scholarship, and two letters of reference.

Singh’s public views called into question 

Students have pointed to Singh’s Twitter account — no longer publicly accessible — and blog posts to justify their allegations about his public views. In his email to The Varsity, Singh defended that his arguments are “rational and contestable.” 

Singh has been criticized for his support of the deportation of undocumented immigrants and family separation. He has also tweeted out the phone numbers of both the Canadian and American immigration enforcement agencies, writing, “If you see/suspect an illegal immigrant in your vicinity, notify the @ICEgov hotline.” He has claimed, without substantiation, that “illegal immigrants support organized crime.”

Singh’s public views on sexual violence have also drawn negative attention. In a tweet, he has defended low conviction rates among rape cases — equating a lack of conviction to a lack of guilt. In 2018, The Washington Post noted that only a fraction of sexual assault cases are reported, and only a very small portion of which ultimately results in conviction. 

On his blog, he has also claimed that survivors should not be called such because sexual assault is not “violent in totality – like murder, torture and terrorism.” He argued that they should instead be called ‘accusers’ — and that calling them ‘survivors’ assumes guilt of those accused and thus unfairly stacks the odds against them. Students have responded that such argumentation negates experiences of sexual violence. 

Singh has also associated violence with gender equality, tweeting, “To men/women: if someone of the other gender slaps you, don’t just stand there. Show some ‘gender equality’ and give them one right back.” Singh has further compared abortion to self-harm, tweeting, “Pro-choice activists often claim that people ‘have the right to do what they want with their bodies.’ That’s ridiculous and untrue… If you try maiming yourself, you’ll be sent to a sanatorium.” 

Calls for rescission, transparency  

A group of political science students who also received scholarships from the department released an open letter claiming that Singh has publicly expressed views in their classrooms that are harmful to marginalized groups, and asking the department to rescind the scholarship. The letter was addressed to acting Chair Robert Vipond, Associate Chair and Undergraduate Director Dickson Eyoh, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science Melanie Woodin. 

“It is clear from our own experiences with Mr. Singh, in addition to his posts and writings online, that his actions and beliefs are antithetical to the values this scholarship promotes,” they wrote. 

Two Change.org petitions also have been circulating calling for the scholarship to be revoked due to the views Singh has publicly expressed. Singh’s lawyer wrote a letter to Change.org, with Woodin copied in the letter, in an attempt to remove the petitions for being defamatory to his client.

There is no reason whatsoever to think that the decision was somehow made considering that which not ought to have been considered or that somehow the Dean was misled in making the discretionary decision to award Mr. Singh the scholarship,” Singh’s lawyer wrote. “The decision of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science is reasonable and should stand.” 

The letter also criticized the petitions for trying to make the scholarship be awarded “based on a popularity contest,” and noted that “universities are not about conformist views but of opening minds.” 

Following the claims from Singh’s lawyer, Change.org removed Singh’s name from the petitions. However, the petitions still remain active. 

The Arts and Sciences Students’ Union has called for the student concerns to be reviewed, as well as greater transparency in awards processes, departments to review their guidelines for giving scholarships, and departments to ensure they have diverse selection committees for awards.

Other groups echoed these calls for greater transparency, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Association of Political Science Students, the International Relations Students’ Society (IRSS), and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU). The IRSS and the SCSU also called for a review of the decision.

Department’s decision, fellow scholars’ responses 

After announcing that it was “actively looking into the matter” on Tuesday, the political science department’s statement on Thursday concluded that “all of the scholarships were awarded in a manner that was consistent with the rules set out in the application process.” It wrote that the application dictates that scholarships are awarded solely on the basis of the information and documentation provided by the applicants themselves. 

In an email to The Varsity, Singh wrote that he has not been contacted by the department regarding the review.

Some of the other scholarship recipients wrote in a second open letter that following the department’s decision to not rescind the award, they “urge the department to review its commitment to equity in light of repeated student concerns.”

The department is effectively conveying to students that all they have to do to win this award is just say they have worked to support marginalized communities, even if their public statements create the opposite effect,” the recipients wrote. 

They also added that the department’s conclusion to the situation “makes it appear as if it is more concerned with the technicalities of the application process than the stated intent of the award.”

Helen Ho, another recipient of the David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship and one of the letter’s signatories, wrote in an email to The Varsity: “As an Asian woman and fellow recipient of the award… I have not felt Mr Singh’s comments are particularly ‘understanding’ or ‘inclusive.’ ”

“I am particularly hurt when I think of the work myself and my fellow recipients have done to try and actively promote inclusivity,” she added.

Amelia Eaton, another political science scholarship recipient, said in an interview with The Varsity that the department “is abdicating the real responsibility that they have to students, not just to make sure that the awards have some integrity… but also to show all students that they are willing to be anti-racist, and to advance equality for women, and to be a safe place for refugees and immigrants.”


Where to find sexual violence and harassment support at U of T

A list of safety resources is available at safety.utoronto.ca

The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre’s website is www.svpscentre.utoronto.ca

Individuals can visit the centre’s website for more information, contact details, and hours of operation. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266.

Locations:

  • U of T downtown Toronto campus: Gerstein Library, suite B139
  • U of T Mississauga: Davis Building, room 3094G
  • U of T Scarborough: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building, EV141

Those who have experienced sexual violence can also call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (U of T Mississauga).

After-hours support is also available at:

  • Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (416-323-6040)
  • Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre (416-495-2400)
  • Trillium Hospital Sexual Assault Care Centre (905-848-7100)