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University tells student she can’t share statistic on link between abortion, premature birth

The point of class is not ‘critical thinking’ but ‘critical-mindedness’

Have we found the next Lindsay Shepherd?

Another Canadian graduate student got hauled into a meeting with her professor and department chair because her comments – which were relevant to the class discussion – could have prevented others from feeling “valued and safe.”

Valerie Flokstra surreptitiously recorded her meeting with Nancy Norman and Vandy Britton, who leads the teacher education program at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, and shared it with former talk show host Andrew Lawton.

Lawton posted about 8 minutes of what he called an hourlong meeting between the student and professors. In a Thursday blog post, he mentioned snippets of conversation that aren’t in the audio he posted.

Flokstra earned a meeting with the professor and department chair because she “questioned whether high abortion rates in Canada” could be playing an indirect role in increased diagnoses of autism, Lawton said. The class was told that premature births were a factor in increased diagnoses, leading Flokstra to cite research that found abortion linked to preterm births (below).

The university’s teacher education program is explicitly focused on “social justice and inclusion,” to the extent that it held a “formal naming celebration” in 2012 to identify the program in the language of a local indigenous tribe.

According to Lawton, a fellow at the True North Initiative, the treatment of Flokstra was even more stunning because she had been previously called into a meeting with a different professor for expressing her own discomfort in class.

‘You’re obviously a very proud Christian’

The meeting took place in December. Flokstra has only released the audio now because she has since graduated and works in a private school, and is safe from “academic reprisals,” according to Lawton.

(After Lindsay Shepherd posted audio of her inquisition by professors for showing a debate on gender-neutral pronouns to her class, Wilfrid Laurier University investigated but eventually cleared the graduate student of wrongdoing.)

The College Fix has listened to the full audio posted by Lawton, though it’s not clear at what point it took place during the hourlong meeting. It features mostly Britton explaining to Flokstra why her abortion example was inappropriate and insensitive to other students.

“I know you’re a Christian,” Britton tells Flokstra at the start of the audio: “You’ve spoken about God and your beliefs a lot, and you’re obviously a very proud Christian, in the sense that you feel good about being a Christian.”

Flokstra agrees, but says her teacher mentor and faculty mentor “can both attest to the fact that I’ve been very professional at this school” where Flokstra has been placed through her program.

In contrast, in her university class, “here’s a place where I’m really excited to have those critical thinking conversations,” she says when Britton cuts her off.

“It’s not critical thinking – it’s critical mindedness, which is different,” the chair says. “It’s about being open to other people’s ideas too, and hearing what they say and not always filtering it through your lens, so that’s where I go back to what happened in the class with me.” (It’s not clear if Britton is saying she was in the class that Norman was teaching):

It’s hard, right, because in the same way that we immediately, when we hear something, it triggers a connection for us somewhere else, and so immediately it’s a personal thing. So my suggestion to you … is maybe that when you have those connections, that you write them down for yourself. Just literally get the piece of paper out … that’s a great way for you to learn.

Think ahead: ‘OK, if I say this, does it have the potential to hurt anybody?’

“So you’re saying I can’t say what I’m thinking in class?” Flokstra responds. “No, I didn’t say that. Did I say that?” Britton responds.

Told by Flokstra that “I feel like that’s what I’m in trouble for,” Britton sighs and tells her she’s not in trouble with either Britton or Norman:

[B]ut from my perspective and what happened in my class, is that I need to make sure that the other students are in an environment where they feel valued and safe, and they can contribute and they’re not shut down, and they’re not brought into a place where they’re uncomfortable too, so we’re all in that same position in that room. And there’s 31 people, plus me, 32. So my role is to monitor the conversation, and to [long pause] when there’s a potential for actually a lot of could be very hurtful or painful for somebody in the class, it’s my role to talk to you both about that.

Flokstra tries to interject, but Britton keeps talking. She speculates that based on Canadian abortion rates of one in 10 women, there might be two women in Flokstra’s class who have already have an abortion:

[I]t’s that thinking ahead before you say something that we’re talking to you about. it’s not that we want to shut down what you’re thinking, absolutely not. So sometimes maybe what it is, is writing it down to think, “OK, if I say this, does it have the potential to hurt anybody?”

Flokstra protests that she brought up a “medical statistic that I think everyone has the right to know,” and Britton cuts her off again, saying the class discussion “was about autism, it wasn’t about abortion.”

Britton has talked about abortion in class but “always, before it happens,” has let students know to talk to her if they’re “uncomfortable” with the discussion. “And I’ve excused girls from being in the class while the conversation has happened, because I care about their safety.”

Flokstra responds: “But this is a university, it’s not a high school. Universities are supposed to be places with freedom of speech and sharing ideas.” The student’s mentions of free speech appear to set off Britton, because the chair interjects again immediately:

That has nothing to do with freedom of speech and sharing ideas. It’s still about you creating an environment in a classroom, no matter where, no matter what age of people, that considers the needs of the people. If I came in and didn’t let you say what you believe, I’m shutting you down.

“I kind of feel like you are shutting me down though,” Flokstra responds. After another long pause, Britton tells her that “I’m asking you to think about the other people around you, and how what you might say could impact them”:

That’s a different thing than shutting you down. Your beliefs are your beliefs, and it’s not my place, and I never, ever, ever would tell you what you can or can’t believe, but I can talk to you about what you say and how you act in the class.

Mentioning the statistic is like a KKK club on campus

The second file shared by Lawton doesn’t say at what point it happened in relation to the first.

“I’m sort of getting the impression, though, that I need to see everybody else’s perspective with critical-mindedness, but other people don’t need to consider my perspective with critical mindedness,” Flokstra says.

“That’s what you’re feeling?” Britton says, and Flokstra agrees. “That’s not my intention. Absolutely not,” Britton continues.

At this point, Flokstra gets one of her few uninterrupted trains of thought:

Then how come when I say something that, in my mind, fits very well with the current conversation, [that] is the problem? I’m going to be scared to say anything in class then, because to me everything I’ve said has been equally valid, fitting into the conversations – including the two comments we’re talking about right now. So I’m not going to be able to distinguish between the two, which means I won’t really be able to contribute. [long pause] And plus, I thought universities had freedom of speech for discussing controversial issues like this.

Britton starts speaking slowly at this point, as if weighing her exact words:

It’s not freedom of speech per se, it’s that we still consider people’s feelings and we don’t just say whatever. That’s why we don’t have the KKK having a club on campus. That’s not freedom of speech, that’s hate. We don’t put forward ideas that are intentionally or not that are hateful [sic]. And I think abortion is one of those contentious issues that can make someone feel that they feel threatened on both sides.

Flokstra protests that she didn’t express an opinion about abortion, but just shared a medical statistic: “There’s a big difference there.”

“I agree, but it wasn’t the whole story either, right? Again, I’m going back to the leap” – Britton chuckles here – “that it was this leap to here, that to there. What you’re … saying is that abortion causes autism, which isn’t true.”

Getting exasperated, Flokstra says she never said abortion causes autism. “Then why would it have come up?” Britton responds. “That’s the piece that I’m struggling to understand. … I feel like you’re feeling like you’re threatened by what I’m talking about, and I don’t want to put words into your mouth.”

Her voice cracking, Flokstra says she “kind of” feels threatened: “I feel like my right to freedom of speech and expression is being threatened here.”

After another long pause, Britton says Flokstra is “allowed to say whatever you wish to say, as long as it doesn’t shut down other people”:

And I think that’s where the question is coming into play, the fact that sometimes when people have very strong beliefs and views, it can shut down other people.

Flokstra takes umbrage at this insinuation, claiming she’s “very open to dialoguing about the comments that I said”:

I would love to dialogue about this – that’s what freedom of speech is about. I’m happy to listen. So I don’t see how my comments shut people down. I think you’re shutting me down.

Norman, the class instructor, finally enters the conversation after another long pause.

“I think how I perceived it as the instructor in the moment there is that it was [long pause] there was a lot of potential for that kind of connection between abortion and autism to be misunderstood, misrepresented, to be very hurtful and damaging to other students in the class,” Norman says.

Told to put her ‘Christian identity’ under her ‘teacher identity’

According to Lawton’s characterization of the rest of the recorded meeting that he didn’t post, Norman and Britton accused the student of “derailing” the discussion in class.

When Flokstra asked whether the point of the classroom was “feeling safe at all times” or learning, Britton mischaracterized the statistic she had shared:

If I’d had an abortion for whatever reason, and then someone said to me, “You’re going to give birth to a kid with autism because of that,” how would that make me feel, and how would that possibly help me with my learning?

Britton went off-topic at one point, starting a debate on abortion itself with the pro-life student, according to Lawton. (Flokstra says this was the first time she mentioned abortion in class.)

In another part of the meeting that Lawton says he can’t “independently verify,” Flokstra mentions a previous incident with a different professor, Awneet Sivia, who called her into a meeting.

Flokstra had been uncomfortable with an “in-class role-playing assignment that featured a scenario with a same-sex couple,” according to Lawton, and she cried while recounting that Sivia told her to “put my Christian identity aside and put my teacher identity on top of that.” (Flokstra shared an email exchange with Sivia about the incident, pledging to participate “in all scenarios moving forward.”)

The university gave Lawton a statement declining to comment on the recording because it would a “breach of confidentiality” for Flokstra and violate provincial privacy law.

“The UFV Teacher Education Department, the Teacher Education Program, and UFV are deeply committed to respecting freedom of religion, the right to free speech, and to upholding an overall policy of inclusion,” the statement read.

Read Lawton’s post and listen to the posted audio.

IMAGE: Valerie Flokstra

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.