After four months of doing her master’s research project on ethical veganism, Sinem Ketenci was called “racist” and told to switch topics. Ketenci is now taking the case to the Human Rights Tribunal. News Editor Rebecca Burton reports
Ryerson school of social work master’s student Sinem Ketenci is taking the university to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on allegations of being deemed “racist and inhuman” by a professor and discriminated against for her belief and work in ethical veganism.
“I have been blacklisted and further marginalized. At present time no faculty member is willing to give me a reference,” said Ketenci.
Ketenci immigrated to Canada from Turkey 10 years ago and started her master’s degree at Ryerson in Sepember 2010. Upon entering the program she formed “collegial relations with other students and faculty members.” In combination with her master’s program she was a class representative and graduate teaching assistant.
Ketenci asked to incorporate her research on animal rights and ethical veganism into an assignment in October 2010. The professor she was working with at the time said “she did not know very much about the subject matter,” but expressed a willingness to learn.
Yet the assignment was returned with comments from her professor that it was “very racist and inhuman.” The professor disagreed with her stance of putting the suffering of animals and the suffering of racialized people in the same context.
“This is unspeakable of being accused like this. I myself am a racialized immigrant woman,” said Ketenci.
Ketenci said the professor and herself came to an understanding that they would respect each other’s beliefs. The professor agreed she would not become a barrier to Ketenci pursuing this research in potential PhD programs.
In December 2010, Ketenci was not only criticized by her teaching assistant supervisor but also asked if she understood how much she had upset fellow staff. The teaching assistant refused to continue to work with her.
The same day she met with her master research proposal (MRP) supervisor who also criticized her. Ketenci wrote in her letter to the tribunal that they called her “very offensive, dogmatic, not a critical thinker, not open minded and dishonest.”
Ketenci said she was informed in January 2011 that if she continued with this subject matter her master’s would not be granted. All the faculty members knew about the topic, she said. “I was rejected after four months of so much support.”
Nora Farrell, ombudsperson at Ryerson said “there are not any policies in place to indicate what a student can or cannot pursue.” There are policies on whether the approach taken to the subject is academic, she said. Her advice was if a master’s student is having trouble working with their program advisor, the student is advised to go to the program director.
In order to receive her master’s degree, Ketenci changed her topic to the global food crisis. In a meeting on Jan. 17, it was decided she would change MRP supervisors. The original supervisor said he would send letters to the PhD programs in which she was applying to state that he was no longer her supervisor.
Ketenci said she was never told those letters would be letters of withdrawal explicitly stating that the professor no longer supported her PhD applications.
“The main case of discrimination is not changing the topic. It was the withdrawal letter to the schools to which I sent in my PhD applications,” said Ketenci.
The letters of withdrawal were sent to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), at the University of Toronto, where Ketenci applied for PhD programs, on Jan. 20, 2011.
“I didn’t even know the nature of the letters. The only reason I knew were because the letters were cc’d to me. It was unethical because I wasn’t given a chance to clarify the issue,” she said.
In the policies of Ryerson graduate studies it outlines that all conflict should try to be resolved through “informal program channels.” It also states that whenever possible “formal communications should be limited to those parties directly concerned in dealing with the problems.”
Ketenci brought the issue to the office of discrimination and harassment at Ryerson in September 2011. Ketenci was told that it should be considered an academic matter and decision and that it was not an issue of discrimination or a failure to accommodate.
Ketenci disagreed with the response and wrote that the situation was a “serious threat towards freedom of speech and freedom of belief.”
Ketenci’s PhD applications have since been rejected.
“No university would accept PhD applications with withdrawal letters. It’s a very serious accusation,” she said.
Fiona Gardener, admissions and registration clerk of graduate admissions at OISE, said that situations like this could only be discussed on a case by case basis but that “it’s a unique situation, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Ryerson was unavailable for any comment at this time but Bruce Piercey, director of university advancement, said “we haven’t received formal notification that anything from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has been filed.”
Full details of Ketenci’s creed for ethical veganism is outlined in her letter to the tribunal and she is asking for $15,000 in compensation.