CANADA

Conflict at Concordia

A university struggles with a gunman’s legacy

BRIAN BERGMAN June 13 1994
CANADA

Conflict at Concordia

A university struggles with a gunman’s legacy

BRIAN BERGMAN June 13 1994

Conflict at Concordia

A university struggles with a gunman’s legacy

During 12 years at Montreal’s Concordia University, Valery Fabrikant proved an irritating and sometimes threatening presence. He verbally abused support staff and faculty colleagues, evaded his teaching duties and issued death threats against senior administrators. Yet through it all, Fabrikant kept getting promoted, rising steadily from a $7,000-a-year research assistant in 1979 to a $60,000-a-year associate professor by 1990. Then, on the sweltering afternoon of Aug. 24,1992, Fabrikant entered Concordia’s engineering building with three handguns and began shooting. When it ended, two professors lay dead and two others were fatally wounded.

Fabrikant, who is now serving a life sentence for his crimes, claimed that he had been provoked by corruption in the engineering faculty.

But his bloody rampage raised a score of other perplexing questions, not the least of which was: Why hadn’t he been dismissed before matters reached such a tragic climax?

The first of two longawaited reports on Fabrikant’s case, released by Concordia last week, shed some light on that question. Based on a six-month investigation by John Scott Cowan, a vice-rector at the University of Ottawa, the report said that senior university administrators repeatedly failed to seize opportunities to discipline or even to dismiss Fabrikant. In one key instance, Cowan recounted how Rose Sheinin, Concordia’s vice-rector (academic), reluctantly approved Fabrikant’s promotion to associate professor in 1990 despite her belief that he represented a serious threat. In part, she felt the university would face grievances and disputes if she blocked his appointment. Similarly, Cowan describes how on June 23, 1992—just two months before the murders—rector Patrick Kenniff rejected a request by Sheinin and another vice-rector to use his emergency powers to suspend Fabrikant. That request came after it was learned that Fabrikant was seeking his employer’s endorsement for a transport permit for a handgun. Cowan said Kenniff felt “exposed and unsupported” because there were no signed complaints against Fabrikant.

Cowan concluded that at crucial points Concordia officials simply lacked the courage to take the tough decisions required of them. “From time to time,” he admonished, “the occupant of any senior post must risk opprobrium. It comes with the job.” Cowan’s report came at a time when Concordia is still struggling with the aftermath of Fabrikant’s actions. On May 26, Kenniff, Concordia’s rector since 1984, was abruptly removed from his post, a full year before his scheduled departure date. In an in-

terview with Maclean’s last week, Kenniff acknowledged that the university’s desire for new leadership may be tied to the tragedy. “I was the captain of the ship when it sailed through those troubled waters,” he said, “and no matter what your involvement may have been, directly or indirectly, the captain is held responsible.”

Concordia can expect more negative publicity this week when it releases the findings of a separate investigation into Fabrikant’s allegations that some of his colleagues committed academic fraud. Still, students and faculty alike are hoping that by acting on the two reports, Concordia can remove the cloud that has been hanging over them for nearly two years. “People who come here day in and day out are not very happy,” says Lana Grimes, one of four student representatives on the board of governors. “We’re not known for anything but controversy for very, very sad things.”

BRIAN BERGMAN