McGill University, my grad school alma mater, has, in my opinion, acted dishonourably in a recent and unusual case of tenure denial to a brilliant and popular professor.
When I learned of Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim's story, I was fortunate to receive a remarkable trove of evidence: his supporting documents for a defamation lawsuit he launched this summer against a student and a professor in his department who, he alleges, helped ensure his denial of tenure. He believes he was targeted for not being politically correct enough in teaching about Islam.
The documents, which will eventually be publicly accessible, include reports from the tenure committee — one from the majority that denied him and one from the supportive minority — as well as internal emails, testimonials, affidavits, and petitions for and against Ibrahim's tenure. Taken together, they come across as a classic scenario of panicky academic scapegoating to appease a few strident activists.
Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim was born and raised in Cairo. His working-class people are Sufi Muslims. A gifted student, he was the first member of his family to attend university. As the highest-performing student in his B.A. cohort, he was able to secure a position as a lecturer at Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University, a source of radiant pride to his parents. After a stint as a journalist — he was the Cairo correspondent for the Middle East Times and a reporter for an Arabic-language newspaper — Ibrahim did his doctoral studies in the U.S., after which, in 2012, he was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor, specializing in Islamic Law at McGill's Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS).
Ibrahim says he has tried and failed to find evidence of any other denial of tenure in the institute's 66-year history. It was a stunning blow. His contract is set to run out in June 2019, but he was not assigned classes to teach this semester. Julius Grey, a familiar and highly respected name in human rights law in Quebec, is representing Ibrahim in his defamation suit. He believes the evidence is "solid." I spoke with Grey about the phenomenon of "mobbing' in general. Like many other observers of the phenomenon, he is baffled by the cultural moment we inhabit, especially in academia, where "the presumption of innocence seems to have gone completely by the boards," and "where mobbing appears to be authorized and effective."
Ibrahim would appear to be an outstanding scholar in his field. His publication record includes 10 journal articles, several book chapters and two books, among other things. A 2014 evaluation submitted by the institute to Christopher Manfredi, then the dean of arts and now McGill's provost, said: "Prof. Ibrahim has compiled an impressive research and teaching record that would already count as superior in a tenure recommendation."
Ibrahim's popularity is reflected in the size of his classes. Records provided by Ibrahim and alluded to in the tenure committee's report show that numbers in his 300-level Islamic law course far outstrip other professors' classes.
His department "service" — a tenure criterion that counts working on conferences and committees and public outreach — is also impressive. This past January, Ibrahim was nominated for the McGill Principal's prize for public engagement through media.
Tenure is awarded for "superior" (as opposed to "reasonable") rankings in two out of three of: scholarship, pedagogy and service. The majority tenure report suggests Ibrahim's denial devolved onto one criterion in which he allegedly fell short: the question of whether students felt free to express their views in his classes.
Which is puzzling. Rankings by students of Ibrahim's teaching over five years, based on surveys taken at semester's end, start strong in 2012 and get better over the years. Ibrahim's rankings on the question of concern averaged out at 4.8, while the IIS average was 4.6. Out of 331 student rankings over the past six years, only nine said they did not feel they could express their views freely. They are all, suggestively, clustered in 2017, the last semester (as the tenure committee's minority report noted was "suspicious") from which student evaluations would count towards tenure.
Among the rest are such comments as: "He encourages us to think critically and is very neutral himself when it comes to controversial subjects"; "always encourages us to share our thoughts …"; "would always encourage the students to speak their opinions …"; "He would never impose his way of thinking; instead he aimed for disagreement, debate and confrontation of ideas."; "Ideas and opinions are always welcomed in the class, as long as they are respectful"; "My fav course at McGill and the best Prof I've had." Words like "the best professor I had at McGill" show up a lot.
It appears Ibrahim's troubles first began after what he says was a consensual relationship with a former student — I'll call her MG — in 2014. At the time, McGill had no policy in place regarding faculty-student relationships. In fact, the university only recently established an ad hoc senate committee to examine teaching staff-student intimate relationships. Its report is due in December. The IIS being a bit of a social fishbowl, everyone was aware of the relationship, but nobody made objections at the time.
Ibrahim did, however, court conflict-of-interest accusations because MG became his research assistant for a time. He says they agreed to abort the working relationship in September 2014. He was disciplined by the university for failing to disclose the conflict in writing. (Neither the relationship nor the conflict of interest was adduced as a reason for tenure denial or even mentioned in the reports.)
Ibrahim says the romantic relationship with MG ended in April 2015, before he left for a summer research trip in Egypt. The breakup seemed amicable, he thought. But post-breakup, she began retroactively to see a "power imbalance" in the relationship, a perspective that found support amongst strongly feminist students and professors.
In early June, then IIS director, Rula Abisaab, asked for a conference Skype meeting with Ibrahim. Four members of the IIS told Ibrahim his relationship with MG had created a "toxic environment" at the Institute. Ibrahim vigorously disagreed with the assessment, but apologized to his colleagues. Ibrahim says that had MG lodged any official complaints, he would have been contacted.
In September 2015, an anonymous op-ed by a former research assistant, with details concerning an affair with her professor, appeared in the McGill Daily. In it, the author claims she was exploited by a serial seducer: "He was a predator … He was using young women as vessels for self-validation. He was abusing his power, and he had no intention of stopping." Though the piece was anonymous, the Students' Society of McGill University said the piece was widely known to be about Ibrahim. Ibrahim insists he has never committed any misconduct with any woman.
For more than a year, Ibrahim's life followed its routine paths. Then, in January 2017, student Sarah Abdelshamy, who is today the subject of Ibrahim's defamation lawsuit, enrolled in his 300-level Islamic law course. According to multiple witness testimonies, including notarized affidavits from students in the same class (included in the documents), from the outset Abdelshamy manifested hostility in class to Ibrahim's objective teaching method.
Ibrahim explains that he teaches Islamic law as he would have taught any other body of laws, like Common law or the Napoleonic Code. But Abdelshamy vocally challenged his Qur'anic references, he says, such as when he explained that in Islamic law jihad could be "defensive" but also "offensive."
Ibrahim recalls her insisting that Islam was a religion of peace — period. Ibrahim claims he tried accommodating her passionate views. I talked to five other students (Ibrahim connected us) who support him on that point. They commented that Abdelshamy was "rude" and "a very aggressive person in that class." One said "I think (Abdelshamy) has a personal vendetta against Professor Ibrahim." I contacted Abdelshamy twice requesting an interview, but received no response.
Two days after last January's Quebec City mosque massacre, Ibrahim walked into class, asked for a moment of silence and then devoted the class to a discussion of Islamophobia by playing the role of a bigoted uncle and inviting the students to debate him. Abdelshamy clearly took umbrage at his dispassionate approach. She published her own op-ed in the McGill Daily, accusing Ibrahim of insensitivity and of legitimizing Islamophobia.
"I allowed myself (in the past) to become very critical of the statements made by the professor; such as: 'ISIS does not invent any Qur'anic verses or hadiths,' which undoubtedly implies that Islam is compatible with terrorism," she writes. But then, "he sparked a debate in which we began to argue with a hypothetical Islamophobic uncle. As soon as he uttered these words, the charismatic, charming, grinning professor was eclipsed by an unruffled man who used the tragedy as a platform to express any students' internalized and/or externalized Islamophobia, instead of using it as a platform to incite change." And she claims he opened the floor wider to white students than to students of colour — something many of her classmates vehemently deny. Ibrahim categorically denies all her accusations.
Abdelshamy's accusations of Islamophobia against a Muslim professor didn't catch fire. But dormant, sexually charged insinuations, like those from MG — more than two years past — made excellent tinder for the blaze.
Up went a Facebook page with vague but sinister insinuations: "Have you had bad experiences with Prof. Ahmed F. Ibrahim? You're not alone. He's up for tenure this year. The time to act is now!" Posters with that message were hung around the school, along with stickers alleging inappropriate behaviour with female students. Eventually, months later, another piece about Ibrahim showed up in the McGill Daily quoting an anonymous person claiming to be his student, who said Ibrahim had made her feel uncomfortable by sitting too closely to her, talking too personally and closing his office door during student meetings (something one of Ibrahim's colleagues says he never once saw happen).
Ibrahim insists there has never been a formal complaint of sexual misconduct against him at McGill or anywhere else. Ibrahim asked the dean of arts and the institute's director to launch a formal investigation of the rumours in order to clear his name, but no such initiative was undertaken. I asked Dean of Arts Antonia Maioni and Provost Christopher Manfredi for comment on this story, but they declined.
Ibrahim alleges the campaign was Abdelshamy's way of blocking him, because she didn't like how he taught Islamic law. He is seeking $600,000 in his lawsuit against her as well as against one of his colleagues in the institute, Pasha Khan, who Ibrahim alleges co-operated with Abdelshamy to block his tenure. Abdelshamy's lawyer responded to my interview requests with a polite but brief note explaining "we are not going to comment on any of the allegations in Mr. Ibrahim's defamation proceedings." She added: "We are deeply concerned about the chilling effect lawsuits such as these can have and we will defend our client's right to freedom of expression when the time comes." She did not elaborate. Khan also did not respond to my emails and his lawyer declined any comment for this article. They have not yet filed a statement of defence. Ibrahim says the accusations against him have made him a pariah in his academic field.
Meanwhile, he is appealing his tenure denial at McGill, the hearing set for Oct. 17. I call on the appeal panel to read and weigh every word of evidence, especially the Minority Tenure Report, with extreme prudence and impartiality — and with an eye to McGill's reputation for academic justice.