09/21/2015 16:29 EDT | Updated 09/21/2016 01:12 EDT

MUN apologizes to hard-of-hearing student, says 1996 agreement under review

Memorial University president Gary Kachanoski says a breakdown in communication is to blame for last week's incident involving a hard-of-hearing student and a professor who refuses to wear a sound-transmitting device during her lectures at the St. John's campus. 

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- MUN prof tells very different story, hard-of-hearing student says 

Speaking for the first time on the subject, Kachanoski said there should have been prior conversations between the university's centre for students with disabilities and professor Ranne Panjabi about third-year student William Sears' special needs. 

"That's where the error occurred," Kachanoski said in an interview with CBC Radio's On The Go Monday. 

"That should not have happened in the classroom between the student and Dr. Panjabi. It should have happened between the Blundon Centre for Students with Disabilities and Dr. Panjabi prior to going into that class."

Kachanoski said the centre helps hundreds of students each semester ensure that their special needs are met. 

Three years ago, he said, there were about 300 students "with identified disabilities who were being given accommodations in classes." By the fall of 2014 that number had swelled to 420. 

Decades-old agreement with Panjabi

In 1996, a student filed a complaint against Panjabi after she refused to wear an FM transmitter, stating the device violated her religious principles as a Hindu. 

Then vice-president Jaap Tuinman first sided with the student, but the university later reached an agreement with Panjabi after the professor filed an appeal with the Human Rights Commission. 

That agreement, Kachanoski said, states Panjabi does not have to wear a microphone however, the university "would still have to have a proper accommodation for students in that class."

He said the agreement stipulates that a microphone would instead "be attached to a mic stand or attached to a podium, and Dr. Panjabi would speak into it rather than having the microphone attached to her."

It just so happened, Kachanoski said Monday, there had not been another instance in which a hard-of-hearing student registered for Panjabi's class, so conversations surrounding alternative arrangements likely never took place. 

Panjabi has refused to speak to CBC News but told a local broadcaster that she's the victim of "egregious tabloid journalism."

Under review

Kachanoski said MUN is now reviewing its 1996 agreement with Panjabi, and wants to ensure that a similar incident doesn't happen to any other student.

​Sears filed a human rights complaint Friday afternoon against the university. Mediation is expected to begin once the university is served.

"The student was upset because the student was put in a situation which [he] shouldn't have been put into, and we certainly apologize to William for that," Kachanoski said. 

The president said he isn't aware of any other professor at the university who's made a similar request.