Canadian post-secondary organizations call for resignation of B.C. post-secondary education minister

Academics say Selina Robinson meddled in Langara College Natalie Knight termination

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By EMILY BEST

This story, originally published on Feb. 1, has been updated to include a statement by Langara College. 

Organizations representing Canadian and B.C. post-secondary teachers on Thursday called for the resignation of the provincial minister of post-secondary education, saying she inappropriately interfered in the termination of Langara College instructor Natalie Knight for pro-Hamas comments she made at a Palestinian protest last fall. 

In a letter to B.C. Premier David Eby, the Canadian Association of University Teachers argued that Selina Robinson violated fundamental principles of academic freedom by intervening publicly and directly with the college administration. CAUT represents 72,000 academic and general staff at more than 125 universities and colleges across Canada.

“The minister is free, as any citizen is, to disagree with Dr. Knight’s political views,” said CAUT executive director David Robinson. “However, the minister does not have the licence to censor those views or to meddle in a college’s internal matters.”

B.C.’s Federation of Post-Secondary Educators penned its own letter to Eby, also calling for Robinson to resign, saying not only had she inappropriately intervened in Knight’s termination but that her subsequent statements undermined “the democratic principles of freedom of expression, academic freedom.”

“The notion that a minister would intervene directly with a college and call for the termination of a tenured faculty member is highly inappropriate and unprecedented,” FPSE executive director Michael Conlon said. “We will assist the Langara Faculty Association in grieving this unjustified termination.” 

FPSE has some 10,000 members from 20 independent faculty and staff unions in British Columbia’s public and private post-secondary institutions.

A tumultuous timeline

Knight was placed on paid leave last fall after publicly calling the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israeli citizens “amazing” and “brilliant” at a protest downtown. She was quietly reinstated Jan. 18, following an investigation that found she was “not clearly outside the bounds of protected expression.” With the college remaining silent about her return, Knight announced her reinstatement at another pro-Palestine rally at the Langara-49 Station and Langara campus last week, declaring her return a victory. 

Two days later, Selina Robinson tweeted her displeasure at Knight’s reinstatement, expressing her disappointment that Knight continued to have a public post secondary platform “to spew hatred and vitriol.” She said she met with Langara officials to express her concerns for the college and broader communities. 

The following day, on Jan. 26, the college terminated Knight, saying she breached the conditions of return: refraining from making any future remarks that could be interpreted as celebrating violence against civilians, and complying with “the college’s policies and initiatives which support a safe, respectful, and inclusive learning and working environment.” 

FPSE and the Langara Faculty Association insisted there were no conditions attached to her reinstatement.

B’nai Brith forum

David Robinson said he was “alarmed” by her remarks in the B’nai Brith Canada online forum Jan. 30, where the minister expressed concern that Canadian universities are failing to adequately deal with anti-Semitism on campuses. She also indicated some inside knowledge of Langara College’s dilemma when Knight made her inflammatory comments last fall, saying the college had “struggled, I will say, at the beginning.”

“I’m being called out by the [Langara] faculty association because I … expressed my disappointment of her reinstatement,” Selina Robinson told the forum. “But I also represent a constituency and they needed to see me be upset and be concerned that this was happening.”

Robinson spoke at length about her personal and community connection to the events after the Oct. 7 attack and said she was concerned about anti-semitism on Canadian post-secondary campuses.

“As a Jewish minister, to have this [education] file means that the way I’ve been able to understand it is that it’s a damn good thing that I’m here.”

When the Voice reached out to Robinson after Knight’s termination, she stated that Langara College was responsible for making staffing decisions in accordance with its internal policies.

“We are also concerned that the minister had inappropriate access to confidential employment information about Dr. Knight,” said the FPSE statement. “We have given Langara several opportunities to assure us that no such private information was shared, but they have been unwilling to do so.”

The Voice asked Langara College to comment Thursday on FPSE and CAUT’s statements, and once again sought confirmation there were actual conditions attached to Knight’s return and if so, which ones were broken to cause her termination. In addition, the Voice asked the college to clarify whether Selina Robinson reached out to Langara or whether the college contacted her regarding Knight’s reinstatement.

The college did not answer the Voice’s questions but on Friday issued the following statement from Pablo Vargas, associate vice-President, external relations:

“On January 26 Langara released a lengthy statement explaining the reasons one of our employees is no longer with the College. We have posted this statement on our website. To suggest that there are reasons other than those outlined in our statement is inaccurate. We stand by our decision and statement.”

The Voice also reached out to Knight who did not respond.

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