U of M confirms five open investigations of faculty underway

Three involve sexual assault and harassment, two faculty members are on leave

A spokesperson for the U of M has confirmed there are currently five open investigations under the U of M’s respectful work and learning environment policy and sexual assault policy.

Out of the five investigations, one involves sexual assault and personal harassment, one involves sexual assault and sexual harassment, one involves sexual harassment and two involve human rights claims.

All five complaints have the faculty as the respondent. Out of the five respondents, two are currently on leave.

U of M president and vice-chancellor David Barnard apologized to students affected by incidents of inappropriate behaviour, including sexual violence on campus, at a media conference Wednesday afternoon.

“Inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus, is unacceptable and, quite honestly, I find it to be horrible and reprehensible,” Barnard said.

“Today, I’m here to apologize to students who’ve experienced such inappropriate behaviour. I am sorry. I am deeply sorry.”

The apology, which was the first publicly concerning the issue from the university, came after two prominent cases of sexual harassment and assault by U of M professors toward students became public in a little more than a year. It also comes shortly after the university’s board of governors held two emergency meetings in one week in late August. Barnard would not confirm if the meetings related to the university’s handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.

In 2017, it was reported that jazz professor Steve Kirby had been allowed to retire from the U of M after an internal investigation found allegations of sexual harassment against him held merit.

In August, oncologist and former associate dean at the faculty of medicine Gary Allan Joseph Harding was convicted of professional misconduct and stripped of his medical licence after he allegedly made repeated sexual advances toward two students, both of whom said it was not consensual. While Harding denied any sexual contact, he did acknowledge his actions to be “horrendous” and “even harassing.”

UMSU president Jakob Sanderson criticized the university’s handling of sexual harassment and assault cases, saying the U of M “has lost the benefit of the doubt.”

“For it to have taken many years of complaints against Steve Kirby before actions were even taken in the first place shows that campus safety was not a priority,” Sanderson said.

“Now, for a long time, the University of Manitoba and president Barnard and the rest of his team have been adamant that keeping students safe is a top priority for them. However, the actions have not represented that.”

Following his retirement from the U of M, Kirby went on to a position at Boston-based Berklee College after receiving what has been criticized as a positive recommendation from the University of Manitoba.

Kirby’s letter of employment was released to media at the conference. The letter states Kirby was an “important contributor” to the development of the U of M’s jazz program and notes he helped “raise over $200,000 in funds” for the program. It also mentioned that Kirby had “retired” from the U of M in June 2017.

Barnard told media he learned only a week ago “that we have issued letters of employment to individuals that contained more information than I consider appropriate.”

“I understood [Kirby’s letter of employment] to be a mere chronology of his time at the university, in fact [it] also included an outline of activities and achievements that, though factual, could be construed as supportive,” he said.

“The inclusion of this material was a mistake, and that must not be repeated.”

Vice-provost students Susan Gottheil said the university is taking steps to combat sexual violence “head-on,” including a video introducing students to concepts of consent and sexual violence that launched at orientation this week.

“We’ve been delivering presentations on these issues, as well as power and advising relationships, to international and graduate students in a number of our faculties including music and medicine,” she said.

Gottheil added that all new faculty and new academic administrators “learn about consent culture, sexual violence policies and responding to disclosures” as a part of their own orientation.

Karan Saxena, the consent culture facilitator for U of M student group Justice for Women Manitoba — who was initially denied entry to the news conference but was allowed in at the invitation of local media — said learning there are open, active investigations underway left him feeling less secure on campus.

“After not knowing if the people under these investigations, the respondents, could very well be my professors? Could very well be staff members that I have daily encounters with? I have no idea who these people are,” Saxena said.

“I have no idea who the complainants are. I have no idea who the respondents are. So yesterday, I felt safe. I felt naïve, thinking that the university has policies in place. Now I’m learning that there are multiple investigations that we don’t even know about. I would have to say my honest truth, and I do feel less safe than I did yesterday.

“An apology wasn’t enough to make me feel safe.”

A copy of the employment letter the U of M issued on behalf of Steve Kirby was distributed to media Wednesday: