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Controversial professor Jordan Peterson retires from tenured position at U of T

U of T and professors respond to Peterson’s claim that equity initiatives hurt meritocracy
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Jordan Peterson at the UofT Rally for Free Speech in 2016. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY
Jordan Peterson at the UofT Rally for Free Speech in 2016. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses transphobia and misogyny.

Controversial U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson has announced that he is no longer a tenured professor at U of T. By 2017, he had stopped teaching courses at U of T, but retained a tenured position. 

In an article in the National Post, Peterson explained the reasons for his retirement. He claimed that equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives at the university created career barriers for “supremely trained heterosexual white male graduate students” and made faculty positions less of a meritocracy. 

Since 2016, Peterson has become a major media figure famous for his conservative political views. He has made a number of high-profile appearances on television and podcasts. He has also published a number of books, a podcast, and some online courses. He has often said that contemporary university departments and society at large are overly influenced by identity politics. This stance has attracted a large number of both supporters and critics

In a statement to The Varsity, U of T confirmed that “Professor Jordan Peterson retired in the fall and now holds the rank of Professor, Emeritus.” 

Timeline of events 

Peterson has long been a controversial figure. In 2016, he posted a series of YouTube videos where he spoke against political correctness and Bill C-16, an amendment to both the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) and the Criminal Code, which introduced gender expression and gender identity as protected under the CHRA. The videos were initially reported on by The Varsity in 2016 and drew attention from the media and the world at large, with many students and academics at U of T speaking against Peterson. 

Peterson alleged that the bill curbed free speech because it forced people to use certain pronouns for others against their will — for example, using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ for transgender and nonbinary people who prefer it over gendered pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she.’ He continued to publicly denounce the bill for months in television appearances and YouTube videos, which gained significant media attention.

A number of faculty and student groups spoke against Peterson, with hundreds signing an open letter calling on U of T to fire him. Members of the university administration sent a letter to Peterson asking that he respect students’ pronouns and urged him to stop speaking on the topic on the grounds that using someone’s incorrect pronouns is a form of discrimination. At the time, Peterson was critical of the letter, describing it as an attempt to silence him.

Protests were held at the university both in support of and against Peterson, including an event called “UofT Rally for Free Speech” at which Peterson spoke. Reports of multiple threats against trans and nonbinary students on campus followed the protests. 

Cassandra Williams — vice-president, university affairs of the University Toronto Students’ Union at the time, and a vocal critic of Peterson — said the anti-Peterson protests aimed to “call out the university for supporting and enabling people who are causing harm to trans people.” Debates were also held on campus discussing the subject of free speech and trans rights.

Since 2016, Peterson’s profile has extended far beyond the university. His media appearances, debates, and bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life, have created his reputation as a right-leaning public figure and have drawn supporters worldwide. Some of his supporters have harassed and doxxed his critics. He has made vigorous attacks on identity politics, which he often calls “postmodern neo-Marxism.” Critics have described his various beliefs as transphobic, misogynistic, conspiracy theories, and a dangerous influence on others.  

Retirement 

In his National Post article, Peterson explained the reason for his retirement. He wrote that he had hoped to be an academic forever but, among other reasons, he was unable to reconcile his beliefs with the “appalling ideology of diversity, inclusion and equity” at U of T. “These facts rendered my job morally untenable,” wrote Peterson. 

Peterson further claimed that heterosexual, white graduate students who are men “face a negligible chance” of getting research positions due to the existence of EDI initiatives, and that there aren’t a sufficient number of qualified candidates that belong to minoritized groups for universities to be able to fill diversity targets. 

He also railed against other equity initiatives in higher education, such as mandatory equity training for teaching faculty, which he claimed is ineffective. 

In response to Peterson’s article, a spokesperson for the university pointed to the university’s employment equity reports, which found that between 2019 and 2020, the proportion of appointed faculty who identified as men remained constant.

The spokesperson also highlighted the university’s Statement on Equity, Diversity, and Excellence, which asserts that “An equitable and inclusive working and learning environment creates the conditions for our diverse staff and student body to maximize their creativity and their contributions, thereby supporting excellence in all dimensions of the institution.”  

Criticisms of Peterson’s claims

In an email to The Varsity, U of T Professor A.W. Peet, who has frequently criticized Peterson and has debated him in a widely seen television appearance in 2016, responded to his claims. They wrote that Peterson was a “poisonous presence on campus,” pointing to research that has identified Peterson’s rhetoric as  a “radicalization pathway” for social media users, which has harmed U of T’s reputation.

“I am tremendously relieved that he is no longer a professor at UofT. He harmed a lot of members of our community in recent years, including me,” wrote Peet. 

In an email to The Varsity, U of T Professor Emeritus Ronald de Sousa, who criticized Peterson’s original comments about Bill C-16 in 2017, also criticized Peterson’s article, writing that he wrongly portrayed people who are women, racialized, or LGBTQ+ as “utterly unqualified.” 

“Over half a century ago, when I was myself appointed to the University of Toronto, ‘heterosexual, white male graduate students’ such as myself faced virtually no competition,” wrote de Sousa. Pointing out that historically, academia has largely been dominated by white, heterosexual men, he mentioned that his graduate university’s policies dictated that no women were to be enrolled. “If ‘there simply is not enough qualified BIPOC people in the pipeline’, shouldn’t we support efforts to change that?” wrote de Sousa. 

“I think [Peterson] should have had the decency to resign sooner,” Peet added.