A coach’s firing stirs debate over gender politics
Campus cross fire
A coach’s firing stirs debate over gender politics
She is a striking 22-year-old student at Simon Fraser University. He is a square-jawed, clean-cut 29-year-old who, until last month, coached the B.C. university’s award-winning swim team. They first met in 1990 when Rachel Marsden joined a swim club where Liam Donnelly coached. But what transpired over a period of 18 months in 1994 and 1995 only they know for certain. One thing, however, is clear: either Marsden or Donnelly is lying about it. She claims Donnelly forced her to have sex during a date in September, 1995. “I dated him consensually, I just didn’t want to z sleep with him,” she has said. Donnelly tells \ a very different story. Not only does he deny > any sexual contact, he insists that she was ob§ sessed with him. Late last month, a year af| ter a closed-door hearing in which Donnelly i refused to take part, Simon Fraser president > John Stubbs fired the coach for violating its % policy on sexual harassment.
“What started off as a request to listen to her problems,” says Donnelly, “has turned into a nightmare.”
Whoever is telling the truth, the controversial case is providing the latest flash point in an ongoing war over sexual politics in the ivory tower. Defending Donnelly’s firing, SFU spokesman Gregg Macdonald said the institu_ tion was “legally obligated to | provide a learning environ-§ ment free from harassment.”
But the coach’s defenders Q say the university failed to consider evidence supporting his version of events. And those who monitor sexual harassment on Canadian campuses say the case only adds to the concern that gender politics is making a mockery of justice. “Are there kangaroo courts? Yes, in some universities,” says Winnipeg lawyer Naomi Irvine, president of the Canadian Association Against Sexual Harassment in Higher Education. “Political correctness is driving it.”
While the handling of such cases has rocked several campuses in recent years— most notably the universities of British Columbia, Western Ontario and New Brunswick —few of the hundreds of harassment complaints laid each year are fraught with as much tension as the one at Simon Fraser.
While it is possible Marsden’s case was very compelling, her lawyer was offering no comment last week. And pleading confidentiality, SFU officials refused to release details of the case, presented during five days of hearings before a panel that included faculty, staff and students. But late last week, The Vancouver Sun, citing a confidential
letter from Stubbs to Marsden and Donnelly, reported that the university awarded Marsden $12,000 in compensation. Donnelly, meanwhile, has released a raft of material, bolstered by testimonials from friends and swimmers he has coached, to support his version. According to Donnelly, the month after the alleged date rape, Marsden sent him an e-mail in which she acknowledged that he seemed uninterested in her—but invited him to join her in her car for sex. “If you want to go inside me,” she wrote, “I could sit on your lap or we could do it laying down.” During the same period, friends and colleagues confirm that Marsden haunted Donnelly’s office and the university pool. Provocative photographs other appeared under his office door. Of course, no one has ever had a chance to officially challenge Donnelly’s version.
According to Donnelly, he informed Marsden in September, 1995, that her attentions
must stop. The following month, he consulted the university’s harassment office for advice. In November, Marsden filed her complaint with the same office. An RCMP spokesman says that the force also looked into Marsden’s rape complaint against Donnelly, but found no evidence to support it.
Whether any of that information ever reached the university panel is impossible to say. In a decision based on legal advice he says he now regrets taking, Donnelly did not attend the hearing. His side of events was not presented, and Marsden’s case was not subject to challenge. Evidently, the panel accepted her evidence, concluding in a report released in October that Donnelly had violated two sections of the school’s harassment policy. Two months later, Donnelly did present his account in writing to Stubbs. But
the president disregarded the information because it had not been presented at the hearing. He fired Donnelly late last month, a decision that has many observers voicing concern over how such cases are handled. One common criticism is that those who sit on sexual harassment panels frequently lack the credentials that would be expected in a formal courtroom setting. Levine also faults the now-routine refusal to identify them. “The university community,” she says, “has a right to know who is sitting in judgment.” For Donnelly there remains one avenue for possible vindication. He has applied under university policy to have an arbitration panel review his case. But university rules limit such panels to “reviewing whether the president has exercised reasonable judgment in his decision.” As a result, what really went on between the handsome coach and the attractive student may never get the balanced airing that might dispel the fears of kangaroo justice on campus. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.