Reckoning and Upheaval at Ryerson’s J-School

What happened when longstanding tensions finally came to the surface

Like many institutions, the School of Journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University had something of a reckoning over the past year. Or at the very least an upheaval, resulting from a generation of unaddressed (or insufficiently addressed) issues bursting to the surface in a concentrated eruption.

The specific catalyst was a student named Jonathan Bradley — author of such Post Millennial op-eds as “Remove all equity, diversity, and inclusion offices at Canadian universities” — and his threatening to sue classmates for defamation over tweets that characterized him in unfavourable terms in light of his staunchly social-conservative views. Those stances, which the Catholic News Agency described as “critical views of homosexuality and transgenderism,” were allegedly the reason that a student publication dropped him as a contributor; calling it discrimination on the basis of religion, he responded by taking The Eyeopener to Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal.

Given this, and that Bradley had previously persuaded another student to delete a tweet by way of a lawyer’s letter, more than a few j-schoolers looked to the department’s leadership for support. At a general meeting in February, however, the heads were reluctant to weigh in. Lisa Taylor, the undergraduate program director and associate chair, told the students, “We saw what happened when Donald Trump tried to subvert due process,” to explain why hypothetical intervention in the Tribunal case would be inappropriate.

“We have a system,” said Taylor, a non-practising lawyer and former journalist. “It’s a good system. We don’t run off and, you know, form renegade groups.”

For many students, the administration’s response to the situation was reflective of what they saw as a longstanding lack of support for those from marginalized backgrounds and for students’ wellbeing more generally.

The following month, Taylor and chair Janice Neil stepped down from their respective positions in the administration. (Both remain as professors.)

Several hours later, a letter was published that had been in the works for weeks, signed by more than 200 students and alumni, headed “IT IS TIME FOR CHANGE.”

“Our years at [the Ryerson School of Journalism] have been polluted with trauma and fear,” it said. “We refuse to let incoming and future RSJ students experience the same.”

This week’s CANADALAND examines what went down at Canada’s most prominent journalism school and where it goes from here.

The show features a pair of conversations: Jesse Brown talks to Taylor and Karyn Pugliese, who, following the letter’s publication and in part due to the series of events, left her tenure-track teaching job at the school after only a year; and Cherise Seucharan speaks to Sarah Krichel, a 2019 graduate and former Eyeopener editor-in-chief, and Rhea Singh, a current student and one of the letter’s organizers.

Here are some excerpts, just lightly edited:

Karyn Pugliese, on first taking the job: “When you go in, you become a BIPOC professor. A few things were explained to me by other BIPOC professors, and it’s that you are gonna be asked to take on some of the most challenging courses, because the students want these courses and they want them taught by people with lived experience. And God help you if they’re mandatory courses, because they bring in everybody, including people who feel, ‘This topic is being shoved down my throat.’ And you will get it from both sides: you’ll get it from the students who think you’re not going far enough, and you’ll get it from the students who don’t want to have this discussion in the first place. And they’re challenging courses where people have challenging conversations, and a lot is put out on the table.”

Sarah Krichel, on the frustrations behind the letter: “I know a lot of students felt like journalism school was really only there for you if you were turning out to be a kind of cookie-cutter journalist, meant for either the CBC or the Toronto Star and that’s it. And if you had any other kind of transformative or radical or varying idea of what journalism should or could be, then you were not really given the same support as other students. I saw that year after year. And I think that that really contributes to a separation between the students who have experienced any sort of marginalization in their lives, because they’re more connected to reforming the way the Canadian media landscape works, because it impacts those communities. And so you saw a lot of students of colour, LGBTQ students, or Indigenous students who weren’t as supported. And I think that that kind of extends into other issues, other mental-health issues.…When I was in a leadership position at the Eye, I saw close-up the student mental-health crisis, which extends beyond journalism school. And I saw substance abuse and I saw depression and I saw physical health dwindling amongst people that I was extremely close to. And I communicated these issues to administration, when I felt like I was in a stable enough position mentally and emotionally to do so. And it yielded no results.”

Lisa Taylor, on the circumstances: “I do need to believe that, in time, we will see this through the lens of, ‘Yeah, we were all really at a fragile place’ — you know, February, the cruellest month in any regular academic year and now let’s just add a pandemic. I think that a lot of students may wake up in a month, in a year, and go, ‘Yeah, I’m glad we fought the big fight. But, yeah, the kind of collateral damage was greater than it had to be.’ I hope there will be that recognition. And I’m willing to say, as someone who, yeah, is part of the collateral damage, that what comes of this could be better. It could be worth it.”

Rhea Singh, on Neil’s and Taylor’s resignations: “I thought it was a copout, honestly. I know that they did that to open a space for someone else, so that a person of colour or a person who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community could take on this role, because that’s what students wanted to see, so they could identify with someone in a position of power. I think that was their thought process, that ‘I’m gonna give this position to someone else.’ But how we saw it was, ‘There are all these problems that you are not willing to address, and your decision is to resign? Instead of resigning, you could have just sat down with the students who have been asking you to talk with them for so long and discuss the improvements that you can make. You can leave if you want, but don’t leave with a complete mess on the table. Clean it up and then leave.’ Like, there’s so much more work that there was to be done. And it just felt like they were giving up.”

And from a March episode of Short Cuts that discussed the situation…

Jeet Heer, correspondent for The Nation, on the broader context: “I think of it in generational terms, which is that people who are in their late teens, 20s, and 30s, they know that the world that they’re getting is not the world that older people have gotten. They’re not gonna get the good, steady jobs for 20 years; they’re not gonna get the pension. And to be honest, you know, when they’re my age or older, they’re gonna inherit a doomed planet that is gonna be in its death knell. So the fact that they have decided to focus, within those conditions, on emphasizing mental health and wellness kind of makes sense.…The core existential fact is we’re talking about people who are screwed. They’re screwed as a generation, and they’re screwed as people entering into this very precarious profession. This is the strategy that people are cobbling together to deal with this.”

Top image includes the top of the students’ letter as well as a screencap of Taylor at the February meeting.

Clarification (July 26, 2021, at 3:15 p.m. EDT): One passage has been revised to more accurately reflect Bradley’s public comments about homosexuality and gender non-conformance.

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