A woman’s studies professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., is within her rights to criticize and badger volunteers who work at a Catholic-inspired social justice program on campus, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled.

The decision was the latest episode in a five-year war of words between the university’s women’s studies program and Solidarity Experiences Abroad, a program that places students from the school in volunteer jobs in Latin America and is administered by the university’s Roman Catholic chaplaincy.

Women’s studies and sociology professor Ana Isla alleges that the SEA program has ties to “far right” and “cult-like” Catholic organizations in Peru. She claimed in a motion passed by the women’s studies program committee in 2011 that “there have been documented cases of physical and psychological abuse, classism, sexism, racism and homophobia in activities related to Solidarity Experiences Abroad.”

German McKenzie, who ran the SEA program at Brock for eight months in 2010 and continues to volunteer with the chaplaincy office, complained of Isla’s rhetoric to the Human Rights Tribunal in January. In his Oct. 9 decision, Ken Bhattacharjee said the tribunal should not intervene in the internal affairs of the university where issues of academic freedom are at stake.

“In my view, given the importance of academic freedom and freedom of expression in a university setting, it will be rare for this tribunal to intervene where there are allegations of discrimination in relation to what another person has said during a public debate on social, political and/or religious issues in a university,” Bhattacharjee wrote.

McKenzie claims he wasn’t trying to limit anyone’s academic freedom, only protect his reputation.

“I respect academic freedom, but academic freedom has to be exercised responsibly,” McKenzie told The Catholic Register. “How do you balance that in a university? That’s a big thing. I’m not saying it’s easy.”

He had asked the tribunal to suspend the case while the university’s own human rights committee looks into the case. But once started, the tribunal decided to render its decision.

“From my side, it makes sense for everybody to solve this grievance at the lower level than at the higher,” said McKenzie. “That’s what common sense tells me.”

Brock University chaplain Raoul Masseur expects the university’s human rights committee to issue a report very soon. University administration refused to comment on the committee report.

McKenzie is a doctoral candidate at Catholic University of America who expects to graduate with a PhD in secularization theory in the coming months. He hopes to launch an academic career in Canada and felt Isla’s campaign against SEA and himself were poisoning his chances.

Brock administration has already once ruled that Isla’s accusations are unfounded and that the relationship between the university and SEA has been beneficial to the university. The university’s “internationalization committee” investigated Isla’s allegations against SEA in January and found “there was no compelling evidence to support such an action (severing ties with SEA) and further affirms its support for this partnership.”

The committee, headed by university provost Murray Knutila, said that consenting adults should be trusted to make an informed choice about whether or not to participate with SEA, so long as the program was clear about its affiliations. While inspired by Catholic social teaching, the program is a non-denominational invitation to the whole Brock community, said Masseur, the SEA founder.

Isla’s campaign against SEA was bolstered last year by the CUPE-financed Occupy Brock movement on campus.

“We ask to take a stand and only officially sanction volunteer opportunities with non-religious organizations,” associate dean of social sciences June Corman told an Occupy Brock rally Sept. 17, 2011. “And that in fact, all course work opportunities at Brock also not be involved with specific religious organizations.”

SEA has more than 360 Brock students, faculty and alumni preregistered for solidarity trips in this academic year. As the movement to cut ties to SEA gained ground last winter it took Masseur less than a week to gather 200 letters of support from more than 1,200 past participants in SEA trips.

E-mails and phone calls to Isla for this article were unanswered.

Published in Canada