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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2008

UofA Students, Faculty Protest Human Rights Office Closure

Hundreds of faculty and students at the University of Alberta have signed letters protesting the administration’s unilateral decision to shut down the Office of Human Rights.

They want to know why the office, which for 18 years offered con­fidential advice and support for stu­dents, faculty and staff seeking gui­dance about discrimination, haras­s­ment and equity issues, was closed and why the university community wasn’t consulted on what the administration has dubbed a “reorganization” process.

Piet Defraeye, chair of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta’s equity committee, said he was shocked to learn about the closure.

“The OHR took a very proactive approach to sensitizing the university community about human rights issues by offering workshops in classes and liaising with departments,” he said. “Their work was vital and essential to the university community.”

OHR staff were given their pink slips on Oct. 27. UofA vice-president of finance and administration Phyllis Clark said in an internal memo Oct. 30 that the duties and responsibilities of the human rights office would be reorganized into “an expanded office together with Internal Audit.” A second memo released by her office a week later stated that the newly-expanded unit had been tentatively named “Safe Disclosure and Internal Audit.”

More than 100 academic staff at the Edmonton campus wrote to Clark on Nov. 12, asking for more disclosure on the university’s restructuring exercise. They also asked why the name of an office designated for human rights and equity services didn’t include anything about human rights or equity.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this month and next year’s 25th anniversary of the Abella Commission on employment equity,” said Malinda Smith, a professor of political science at the UofA and a member of the group which spearheaded the letter.

“You don’t demonstrate a commitment to human rights and employment equity by shutting down the Office of Human Rights and creating a vacuum with no specified procedures or policies for dealing with racism, homophobia, sexual harassment and other human rights and equity issues.”

She says there are also a number of important accountability issues that need to be considered. The new unit reports to the board of governors, unlike the OHR, which was accountable to the wider university community.

“This top-down approach is inconsistent with the university’s expressed commitment to collegial governance,” Smith said.

“What we need now is for the administration to step back and deve­lop a task force that can identify best practices for moving forward.”

UofA students have set up a Face­ page to gather signatures for an open letter which they plan to deliver to the administration this month. The group already has hundreds of members. Their letter protests the lack of any proper interim procedures, structures or organizational body that can advocate for student concerns about discrimination or harassment.

They also want to know the rationale for why the OHR was closed, who initiated the decision, why there wasn’t a broader university consultation and how the new entity will improve on any perceived problems with the OHR.

Academic staff association pre­sident Jeremy Richards says his group also want answers to these questions.

“We will be calling for clarity on these developments and involvement in the planning of any new process,” he said. “We want to see a campus-wide discussion on equity and human rights issues that would help inform the new process.”

Clark says the reorganization will improve services and that pro­tests by faculty and students are the result of a misunderstanding. But she declined to comment on whether consulting with the wider university community before the closure might have helped avert the controversy.

She says the administration did consult with some people before the closure, but couldn’t say who. And she admits that they didn’t consult more broadly because “it’s really difficult to consult… when people’s jobs are going to be affected.”

The administration has since responded to concerns about the name of the new office, changing it to Safe Disclosure and Human Rights, “so people would know where to go,” says Clark.

As for broader consultation, Clark said they were considering a consultative mechanism for the university’s employment equity policy, which may also lead a discussion on other issues.

In response to the faculty letter, the administration has offered to meet with different constituents, but people like Defraeye say that’s the wrong approach.

“Rather than that fragmented approach — and fragmentation is certainly the way human rights seem to be addressed now at the university — we want a broader and much more consultative approach, starting with a town-hall-like meeting, then with the striking of a committee or task force to discuss next steps,” he said.