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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 1998

How Not to Promote Equity - Learning from the UBC Saga

By the summer of 1994 the University of British Columbia was faced with an escalating crisis in the Political Science Department, caused by complaints of pervasive racism and sexism lodged by a handful of graduate students. UBC appointed Vancouver lawyer Joan McEwen to investigate. In reaction to McEwen's June 1995 report, which upheld the charges, finding that sexual harassment, racism and sexism were widespread within the political science department, the university closed admissions to the graduate program. The administration made no attempt to differentiate between charges relating to matters of program governance and those relating to individual cases of sexual or racial harassment or systemic discrimination. The administration succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of an entire department, by treating the McEwen report as though it were a judicial decision, and to issue it to the world as though it was the last word rather than the first word in this affair. The McEwen Report and the university's handling of it resulted in months of damaging front-page publicity. Four years later, UBC President Martha Piper apologizes to the political science department. The following extract is from a recent article written by Professor Paul Marantz, a faculty member in the political science department, and published in the Faculty Association of the University of British Columbia Newsletter.

President Martha Piper's recent apology to the political science department for the University of British Columbia administration represents a sincere effort to right a wrong and to turn the page on one of the most disgraceful chapters in the university's history.

She wrote: "It is clear that in 1994 the ad hoc procedure devised to deal with complaints against your Department was inadequate and in part explains the flawed report that emerged and the University's subsequent inappropriate action. For this error I apologize on behalf of the University." Dr. Piper also acknowledged that the head of the department at the time, Don Blake, "acted honourably in the face of harsh and unproven criticism."

This apology followed the release of the second of two reports by investigators for the B.C. Human Rights Commission. Two students who were central to the complaints against the political science department also lodged complaints with the Commission. Both reports concluded there were no reasonable grounds with respect to any of the complaints to merit a hearing by the Human Rights Tribunal.

This conclusion was very different from that reached by the badly flawed McEwen report.

We have learned from this sad saga, but at a very high price. University procedures for dealing with discrimination and harassment complaints have been vastly improved. The report of an investigator no longer goes directly to the President. Instead, it is referred to a three-person panel that hears the response to the report of the complainants and respondents before making its recommendations for action.

There is also, belatedly, a broader recognition that due process and the careful weighing of allegations are not obstacles to equity but essential prerequisites for it.

Unless members of the university community are convinced that fair and rigorous procedures are being followed to distinguish well-grounded allegations from groundless charges, divisiveness and heated debates over procedural questions will impede the pursuit of the goal we all share -- the nurturing of a climate of mutual respect in which diverse perspectives can be freely espoused, welcomed, and debated.