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Acadia University has launched an investigation of associate professor Rick Mehta after they received complaints from students, faculty and others about his polarizing views. (RICK MEHTA) A small-town university in Atlantic Canada has been thrust into the epicentre of a national debate about free speech on campus, amid new allegations a controversial professor has made "racist and transphobic comments" in class.

Critics and supporters of associate professor Rick Mehta have come forward after Acadia University in Nova Scotia launched an investigation following complaints from students, faculty and others about his polarizing views.

A group of Canadian professors dedicated to the defence of academic freedom have condemned the Acadia probe, while Mehta’s designated department head says some students at the Wolfville school say they have stopped attending his class because of his comments.

The outspoken psychology scholar has made comments about a range of contentious issues including decolonization, immigration, and gender politics.

While his defenders say his voice is an antidote to political correctness run amok, his critics say he attacks marginalized people and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The situation has exposed the challenge facing universities of balancing the open exchange of ideas with the responsibility of keeping students safe and supported.

Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, said in a letter Friday that Mehta’s views may be unpopular but they do not constitute an attack on anyone.

"I have read many of Dr. Mehta’s postings and it is difficult to see how anything in them could be construed as discriminatory or harassing," he said in the letter to Acadia’s vice-president academic, Heather Hemming. "If Dr. Mehta’s ideas are false or pernicious, they could be shown to be so through discussion and better ideas."

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Mercer, professor and chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, added in an email that the investigation is a "frontal assault on academic freedom" and warned that investigating a professor for the content of his opinions would cast a chill over campus debates.

Other professors have also spoken out against the investigation, as well as changes to Mehta’s teaching allocation assigning him smaller courses.

A spokesman for Acadia declined to comment.

In a Feb. 26 letter, Mehta’s designated department head, Rob Raeside, detailed some of the complaints against him, indicating that the level of anxiety in the class is high and some students have stopped attending.

"The students have not expressed in writing the precise details of the racist and transphobic comments, but it is clear from their interactions with me that they are extremely disturbed by your comments, some to the point of not going to class," said Raeside, an Earth and environmental science professor. Mehta shared the letter on social media.

The letter offers a glimpse into how the university is grappling with the concerns of students, faculty and others.

Raeside said students have accused Mehta of spending excessive class time on non-class related matters, using non-academic sources for lecture content, testing on content not dealt with in class or in assigned readings and making provocative comments in class.

For example, one student said Mehta spent an entire class on human development speaking about feminism and showing slides denying of the existence of a gendered wage gap, Raeside said.Statistics Canada has said that women in Canada earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by men, largely because of wage inequality between women and men within occupations.Meanwhile, a student claimed Mehta spends much of his lectures discussing "what he spins as ‘free speech issues,’" rather than teaching the required material, Raeside noted in the letter, adding that students say the material is from "right-leaning fringe websites.""I fully understand that […]

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