A bungled sexual harassment policy still plagues Simon Fraser
If 1997 has not quite been an annus horribilis for Burnaby, B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, neither has it been one of the 32-year-old school’s better seasons. Not even close. For months, the news coming from SFU’s hilltop campus had nothing to do with scholarship, and everything to do with sex and scandal. At first, it seemed that a popular swim coach had sexually harassed an attractive female student. SFU fired the offending coach. But then reporters turned up evidence that it was she who had obsessively courted him. After weeks of criticism, red-faced administrators were forced to rehire the coach. Finally, in mid-September, the university’s board of directors installed education professor Jack Blaney as president. The third executive to occupy the office in less than six months, Blaney moved quickly to restore confidence. He ordered a priority review of SFU’s sexual harassment policy and has tried to refocus public attention on the university’s strengths. “The acade-
mic fundamentals are still there,” he insisted.
But neither academic merit nor the latest change at the top have quelled questions about how Simon Fraser, and other B.C. colleges and universities, handle allegations of sexual misbehavior. On Oct. 24, Blaney made the extraordinary admission that Simon Fraser failed to follow its own rules for dealing with sexual harassment complaints on at least 11 occasions between 1993 and 1996. Disclosures continued last week, with the acknowledgment that harassment officials failed to keep proper records during the same period.
Other institutions have also been beset by troubles. In September, a labor arbitrator ordered Okanagan University College to rehire an art instructor the school had fired after two former girlfriends complained about him to administrators. The University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria have both weathered storms over accusations of allowing a “chilly climate” towards women in their political science departments. By last week, it was all evidently be-
coming too much for B.C. Education Minister Paul Ramsey. He told Maclean’s that he will press the province’s 28 postsecondary institutions to launch “a review of harassment policies and procedures across the whole system, including colleges and institutions,” when he talks to their presidents at a meeting this month. “Obviously,” Ramsey added, “there have been severe flaws in some of the policies and some of the application of the policies.”
On Burnaby Mountain, Blaney has given a task force until the beginning of December to find and fix any flaws in Simon Fraser’s policy. But he concedes that any change will come too late to prevent further damage to Simon Fraser’s once sterling reputation. “We started the summer with the reality and the perception of being one of Canada’s best universities,” Blaney laments. “After the summer, the perception was badly tarnished.”
In fact, warning bells began to sound over Simon Fraser’s policy on sexual harassment a full year ago. In the fall of 1996, complaints that SFU harassment co-ordinator Patricia
O’Hagan was not handling cases impartially reached SFU president John Stubbs (now on medical leave). Stubbs ordered a review of O’Hagan’s performance; by the new year, she was on a leave of absence. On April 1, the university ended her contract in a settlement negotiated with her lawyers. Still, Stubbs continued to rely on at least one report prepared under O’Hagan’s direction—with results that would prove devastating for both himself and his university.
On May 22, Stubbs fired swim coach Liam Donnelly for violating Simon Fraser’s nine-year-old policy on sexual harassment. But Donnelly fought back with evidence—including suggestive photographs and lewd e-mail—that his alleged victim, student Rachel Marsden, had in fact stalked him for months before she filed a harassment complaint against him. The beleaguered university president acknowledged that he had known about, but disregarded, Donnelly’s evidence. Then, Stubbs went on leave. In an open letter in July to the university’s 24,000 students, faculty and staff, Stubbs revealed that he was suffering from depression, and hinted that it was related to widespread public criticism of his handling of the Donnelly-Marsden affair.
In September, shortly after he took over the day-to-day administration of the university’s affairs, Blaney commissioned a task force to take over a review of SFU’s harassment policy that had been inching forward without a conclusion since 1994. Blaney ordered the group to get a new policy ready for adoption by the end of the year. But before it could do so, the task force turned up still more evidence of the disarray in Simon Fraser’s harassment office. Soon after starting work, the committee discovered that O’Hagan and Stubbs had not followed the university’s existing harassment policy, in place since 1988, for several years.
That policy requires the president, in consultation with campus groups, to name a pool of volunteers to serve as panelists for harassment complaint hearings. The volunteers are supposed to elect a chairman who selects people from the same pool to hear individual cases. According to Blaney, none of that was done, from shortly after the time Stubbs took over as president in 1993 until some time earlier this year. Instead, Blaney said, records show that O’Hagan hand-picked individuals from outside the volunteer pool for Stubbs to name as harassment panelists.
The departure from policy, he added, raised questions about the fairness of decisions in 11 cases heard between 1993 and 1996—including the Donnelly-Marsden de-
cision. Last week, university officials added that some time in 1993 the harassment office also ceased to keep complete records of many complaints. Blaney clearly hopes such painful candor will allow the university to turn the corner on the long-running series of embarrassments. But that may be more easily said than done. For one thing, Blaney’s disclosure that the university re-
peatedly flouted its own procedures opens the door to a string of potential lawsuits. Driving possible appeals, says Donnelly’s Vancouver lawyer, Loryl Russell, will be the suspicion that some of SFU’s handpicked panels were less than objective. “These people are not inclined to treat things fairly,” argues Russell, who has represented other clients in disputes with Simon Fraser. “You’re led inescapably to the conclusion that they are ideologically biased going in.”
Meanwhile, the debate over what to replace the university’s existing harassment policy with continues to divide the campus. A draft policy being circulated for comment would dramatically change how Simon Fraser deals with the issue. The task of examining accusations of harassment would
be taken away from volunteers representing faculty, staff and the student body, and be put in the hands of experienced outside investigators. If mediation fails to resolve a dispute, a professional arbitrator—or a volunteer panel chaired by one—would hold a hearing that in most cases would be open to the public. And in an attempt to insulate future presidents from Stubbs’s fate, the entire apparatus would report to a vice-president, instead of to the university’s chief executive. Much of that may be revised before a new policy is sent to the SFU senate for approval next month. On many key proposals, according to task force chairman Jock Munro, “there are very polar views.” And no new policy is likely to silence all of Simon Fraser’s critics—including some who question whether universities should be trying to regulate relationships at all. John Fekete teaches cultural studies and English at Ontario’s Trent University and two years ago published a book accusing academe of “moral panic” in its response to allegations of sexual impropriety. In many cases, Fekete argues, universities are to blame for inflicting what he calls “institutional harassment” on individuals like Donnelly. Reforms, he says, may prove to be little more than a “change from kangaroo courts to quasi-judicial kangaroo courts.” Among the other thunderheads gathered over Burnaby Mountain there remains the uncertain future of John Stubbs. The 54-year-old historian and career administrator came to Simon Fraser from Trent, where I Fekete recalls that he “launched a 3 full-scale review of harassment pro| cedures in his last year.” In seclusion £ since June and under medical treat| ment for depression, Stubbs last week % declined to comment on Blaney’s dis| closures. His contract with Simon “ Fraser expires next year, and last March the university announced that it would be renewed for a second fiveyear term. But when Maclean’s asked SFU officials to confirm that a new contract had been signed, they referred the question to board chairman David Bond. Bond would only say: “I have no comment.”
Stubbs’s medical leave expires at the end of December. By then, interim president Blaney hopes to have put a new sexual harassment policy in place. But the issue remains thorny. “I think people are honestly struggling to know how to be with each other,” suggests Susan Shaw, director of the University of Victoria’s Office for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment. “And maybe some ways that used to be acceptable are no longer acceptable. There can be a lot of confusion, a lot of misperception.” And, as Simon Fraser has learned, no small amounts of pain as well. □
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