Nefret El-Masry couldn’t believe what she was hearing in her COMM 395 class.
She alleges that Cameron Morrell, a Sauder lecturer, made disparaging remarks on several occasions, from classes on double standards in workplace clothing to women’s speech patterns and the accents of people who speak English as a second language.
All of these comments, El-Masry said, reinforced barriers to equity. “I think a lot of it was implicit bias that came up and just wasn’t ever really addressed or really noticed. That kind of bothered me and I know it rubbed a lot of other classmates the wrong way,” said El-Masry.
The third-year marketing major was Morrell’s student in the winter term of 2020. She and another student compiled their concerns in a six-page document that El-Masry emailed to Sauder administrators, along with requests that the faculty restructure the class to challenge stereotypes and be transparent with how administrators treat student feedback.
“2020, in particular, has been a year of social justice awakening and a moment of tremendous learning for us all,” she and the other student wrote in the email. “With that said, we were surprised and disheartened by the misogynistic and racially-biased lectures led by Professor Cameron Morrell.”
The faculty has faced its share of ethical concerns in recent memory. Last summer, a group of students was criticized for defending slavery in a class presentation.
Morrell denied that his comments were discriminatory to The Ubyssey. “The issues [the students] raise should have been brought up in the course of class discussions as they are pedagogical in nature and refer to fundamental misinterpretations of course content,” Morrell said in an email to The Ubyssey. “The conclusions reached by the student/s you have quoted are not supported by fact.”
Even so, El-Masry wants change at the faculty level, particularly for COMM 395, a required course for Bachelor of Commerce students.
“It wasn’t just a couple small comments. It’s really consistent. And then honestly, I was just ready to make change,” she said.
El-Masry isn’t looking for anything to happen to Morrell’s career, however. Instead, she is asking for accountability through learning.
“Accountability and making steps to be better is just more effective for me, and I think it also creates a culture where people are okay with messing up,” she said. “But at the end of the day it’s just owning up to it, and we can move on.”
Broaching sensitive topics, without sensitivity
One class was about accents. Morrell said that students with Japanese or Korean accents had a flat intonation that they would need to correct. The report, quoting him from lecture recordings, points out an incident where Morrell allegedly called on a Korean student and said this would be their “big challenge” of the semester.
Morrell said in an email to The Ubyssey that “Students who speak multiple languages are reminded that they are the champions of Sauder” and that he teaches them to “Be proud of your accent if you have one,” using his Australian accent as an example.
“I myself was born in Australia and have an accent,” he wrote in the email. “I ask students to guess where they think my accent comes from as I have lived in many different parts of the world and use my example of being in a leadership position while sounding different as encouragement.”
Yet El-Masry points out that the experiences of people who grew up speaking English and those who learn English as a second language differ. According to the sociolinguistic concept of prestige accents, some varieties of English are deemed preferable to others depending on the region.
Another class was about women’s voices. Morrell spoke about how women’s voices tend to be less deep than men’s and how some women use upspeak — the tendency to end a sentence with a rising intonation. Morrell framed the topics as things female students would need to overcome, according to El-Masry’s report.
El-Masry said that the need to overcome one’s naturally highpitched voice was problematic because it framed masculine traits as the ideal. In his email, Morrell said that the lecture was based on research cited in an NPR article.
In another lecture about women’s clothing, the report reads that Morrell concluded class by saying that clothing matters, despite the double standard for men and women.
“Whether you think there is any gender bias involved, whether it be from your own experience where clothing has played an issue — maybe to your detriment or maybe to your benefit — some of you may know how to work or use your clothing to get what you’re looking for,” Morrell is quoted as saying in El-Masry’s report.
“After the discussions of women having to dress more conservatively, I am afraid of what Professor Morrell may have been insinuating by that comment,” the report said.
The report adds that Morrell showed students a Katy Perry music video and asked students to describe how her “provocative” outfits were “bad.”
Morrell said that the lesson was that image, while superficial, is important because of its real impacts, particularly for women in the workplace.
Prof ‘respectfully declined’ to apologize
El-Masry emailed the report to administrators in the faculty of commerce: Dean Robert Helsely, Assistant Dean Pamela Lin and Senior Associate Dean of Students Kin Lo.
Lo wrote back, offering El-Masry and another student a meeting with him and John Ries, senior associate dean of faculty.
The four met in March 2021. El-Masry said Lo and Ries were receptive to implementing discussion guides on bias — Lo affirmed the faculty’s interest in an email to The Ubyssey but did not provide specifics about implementation — but she said that Lo told her she should’ve voiced her concerns in class.
“When he said that, I was honestly kind of in disbelief. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said. “It just made me feel so helpless and so weak — it’s just victim blaming.” El-Masry suggested that this could speak to a culture of silence among Sauder students.
“It is the right of every student to participate freely, openly, and respectfully in class, and they are protected by the University when they do so, in much the same way that instr-uctors are protected in their conduct of their classes,” Lo wrote in an email to The Ubyssey.
UBC protects a diversity of opinions under its academic freedom policy, which Lo said is meant to protect these types of debates. Yet the barriers to reporting remain despite the university’s anti-retaliation policies from discomfort in the classroom setting to the power instructors hold over students.
El-Masry and the other student present in the meeting with Lo and Ries had asked for an apology in their initial email, in their meeting with the administrators and again in an email after that meeting.
Lo sent back another email: he had brought up the request with Morrell, but Morrell had “respectfully declined” to apologize.
“The issues raised by the student in Prof. Morrell’s Business Communications course relate to topics that are a matter of academic judgment in the illustration of communication differences and challenges,” Lo said in an email to The Ubyssey. “That academic judgment is protected by the academic freedom of Prof. Morrell to teach and of class members to learn, unhindered. Members of the class who have different viewpoints have the right, under the same academic freedom, to disagree and to challenge the instructor.”
In an email to El-Masry, Lo did offer a meeting where Morrell could explain his intentions to El-Masry and another student. El-Masry hasn’t responded because she didn’t think it would be productive.
Lo declined to comment on Morrell’s refusal to apologize, citing “privacy law.”