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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2008

CAUT Calls on Acadia to Reinstate Fired Professor

Colin Wightman – Findings by a CAUT Committee of inquiry show that he was fired without cause.
Colin Wightman – Findings by a CAUT Committee of inquiry show that he was fired without cause.
A CAUT investigatory committee has found that Acadia University acted inappropriately in firing Colin Wightman, a tenured full professor at the university. Wightman also held the positions of director of the university’s school of computer science and acting dean of science.

The committee report released in July recommended that Wightman be restored to his position and compensated for his financial losses. Saying it was so concerned about the actions of the university, the committee also recommended that CAUT consider censuring the university should it not reinstate Wightman.

The firing followed a complaint filed with the RCMP last June that Wight­man had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a young woman who had no connection to the university. When informed he was the subject of an RCMP investigation, Wight­man called his wife and then called the president of Acadia and the university’s di­rector of human resources.

The university placed him on a temporary paid leave and suspended his appointment as acting dean. Two months later, he was advised in writing by the RCMP that the force didn’t anticipate laying any charges. In early September, Wight­man was called to a meeting with Acadia’s direc­tor of human resources and Tom Herman, the university’s acting vice-president academic, and was fired.

Acadia University Faculty Associ­ation filed a grievance, but an arbitration board ruled it didn’t have jurisdiction to hear the grievance because Wightman, as acting dean, wasn’t a member of the bargaining unit at the time of his firing.

In his letter of dismissal, Herman said Wight­man’s “conduct giving rise to (the Police’s) ongoing in­ves­tigation is utterly incompatible with the purpose, principles and operating imperatives of Acadia Univer­sity.” And that “it is vital that the University’s reputation be protected. That reputation in­cludes being a safe and morally ap­propriate in­sti­tution … and that all employees of the University have to conduct themselves in such a way as to pro­tect that reputation.”

Herman’s letter also states that Wightman had used his university laptop “to engage in highly inappropriate communications of a sexual nature on chat rooms, etc.”

CAUT’s committee report noted that “the withdrawal of tenure from a full professor (and especially one on whom a university has conveyed a directorship and then a deanship) requires an extraordinary breach of working conditions.”

In relation to the moral issues, the committee said “Acadia has lost sight of the personal and private nature of Dr. Wightman’s be­haviour. There was no connection between the actions giving rise to the police enquiry and Acadia. In fact, had Dr. Wightman not been overly honest by informing Acadia officials about the (RCMP) enquiry, it is unlikely that Acadia would have known anything. In this re­gard, Dr. Wightman is being punished for honesty.”

The committee expressed concern that an individual’s private activity could be labelled a violation of a university policy. “(This) opens the door to any manner of terminations based on behaviours of which the university might disapprove. That the police exonerated Dr. Wightman at the end of their enquiry seems to be irrelevant to Acadia.”

The committee also noted Her­man’s dismissal letter to Wight­man didn’t provide details about the alleged violations of the university’s computer policies.

The committee wrote that the RCMP had possession of Wight­man’s Acadia laptop for an ex­tended period during its investigation, but did not find actionable material after a thorough forensic audit. Yet Acadia, which had the laptop returned at the end of Aug­ust, alleges sufficient evidence for termination based on chat room communication, after a one-week investigation.

The committee asks “how this is possible,” in their report. “The former director of computing services questioned whether there were sufficient forensic skills at Aca­dia to perform the type of audit required to substantiate the claims made by the university. While it might be possible to log connections between the Acadia server and a chat room, determining the content of the connection and chat message is improbable. Acadia ap­pears to accuse Dr. Wightman on the basis of circumstantial evidence and moral disapproval, without providing detail or soliciting explanation.”

The committee said while Wight­man admitted he had used his university-supplied laptop to enter chat rooms, “access to a chat room and sending messages within one are scarcely grounds for dismissal.” Further the committee found no evidence of disciplinary action being based on Acadia’s adherence to the university’s own computing policy, which specifies a complaint and appeal procedure.

Before the report’s release in July, CAUT executive director James Turk sent a copy to Acadia and Wightman seeking a “mutually agreeable and fair resolution” to the dismissal. He also asked Wight­man to postpone any legal action against the university until there was time to explore a set­tlement. Wightman agreed, but Acadia re­fused to enter into settlement discussions. Wightman has since sued the university for wrongful dismissal.

CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee has asked the Executive Committee to bring a mo­tion of censure of Acadia to the November CAUT Council.