HALIFAX — Dalhousie University is withdrawing a complaint against a student leader who criticized "white fragility" during a campus controversy over Canada 150 celebrations.
The Halifax university had faced a stiff backlash for taking disciplinary action against Masuma Khan for a profane Facebook post, igniting fierce debate about free speech, inclusion and equity on campus.
Arig al Shaibah, vice-provost of student affairs, said Wednesday the university's code of conduct may not place two core institutional values — freedom of speech and the prevention of demeaning and intimidating behaviour — in sufficient and proper context.
"There were enough questions and concerns about whether and how we balance these two fundamental principles, and I thought it was wise to withdraw the process so that we could have some thoughtful reflection and examination of that question," she said in an interview.
The administrator said the case has prompted the university to examine ways to resolve the complaint outside of the regular senate disciplinary process.
The complaint stems from a Dalhousie Student Union decision to not endorse Canada Day celebrations or hold celebratory events on campus in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.
The decision prompted outcry from some groups, like the Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives, who said in a Facebook post the student union "should be helping instill pride in our country, not boycott it on our most significant national holiday."
"The Dalhousie Student Union should prioritize advocating for student issues, not attacking Canada," the Facebook post said.
Khan's response, which questioned why she should be proud of Canada's colonial past and "400 years of genocide," began with "Fuck you all" and ended with the hashtags "whitefragilitycankissmyass" and "whitetearsarentsacred."
Al Shaibah said she understood the comments were an effort to "passionately express allyship for Indigenous peoples and name the legacy of colonialism."
But she said she also had to validate other students’ reasonable expectation to engage in campus debate "without being demeaned and derogated by a student leader."
When Khan rejected an informal resolution to the complaint put forward by the university, the matter was referred to a senate discipline committee.
But rising tensions prompted the university to withdraw the complaint Wednesday.
"Having considered and weighed all of the events of the last few weeks, and particularly the last couple of days, at this time, with the endorsement of the officers of senate and with the knowledge of the complainant and witnesses, I am withdrawing the complaint," al Shaibah said in a statement.
She said public conversations about the issue have become increasingly polarized, and in some instances, hateful, undermining the values of respect, inclusion and safety Dalhousie is seeking to foster.
"It really saddened me," al Shaibah said of the vitriol on campus and online, including threats against Khan and her identity, a Muslim woman of colour.
However, some of the outcry came from faculty at the Nova Scotia university. A group of law professors at Dalhousie's Schulich School of Law urged the university not to "police and censor" the tone of political speech, while the Ontario Civil Liberties Association accused the university of censoring political speech.
Khan, a fourth-year student, said she received an email from the university three minutes before the public memo went out.
"They still haven't reached out to me personally. They still haven't included me in this conversation," she said. "The email didn't really include any reasons as to why the university was withdrawing the case. I'm sure they felt pressured."
Khan said she will be considering her options for holding the university accountable, but she said students deserve an apology.
"I don't want this to be something that they sweep under the rug," she said. "To me, this is still about the university not really addressing the issues of systemic racism on our campus. To me, this is about the university not really going about reconciliation in the right way and tokenizing us and silencing racialized women that are leading this work on our campus."
Yet al Shaibah — who said she has experienced racism and Islamaphobia herself — said she is committed to taking action.
"It's not enough to have rhetorical commitment. We have to move to the reality of action," she said. "I'm very much working with my colleagues and students who want to see action and change."