Dalhousie University ordered to pay ex-student nearly $50K

A former doctoral student at Dalhousie University has won a judgment worth nearly $50,000 against the university for breach of contract.

Justice says university researcher did not act in student's best interests

In her written decision, Justice Suzanne Hood says Dalhousie University didn't enforce its conflict-of-interest policy. (CBC)

A former doctoral student at Dalhousie University has won a judgment worth nearly $50,000 against the university for breach of contract.

Tara Tapics, 42, is now a doctoral student at Sherbrooke University in Quebec. But in 2010, she was part of a research project studying leatherback turtles at Dalhousie that she hoped would lead to a PhD with the Halifax-based university.

According to a court decision released Tuesday, the project got bogged down, in large measure because of friction between Tapics and one of her supervisors, Dr. Michael James. He works for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) and is a senior species-at-risk researcher.

In its defence, Dalhousie University claimed the problem was strictly with adjunct professor Michael James. (CBC)

Relations between James and Tapics became strained and deteriorated over the course of the project. The head of the research project, Dr. Christopher Taggart, eventually met with the dean of the faculty of graduate studies over concerns about conditions James wanted to impose on Tapics' work.  

The dean ended James' appointment with the faculty and Tapics changed her PhD topic and began working with a new supervisor.

In the decision released Tuesday, a justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled that Dalhousie breached its responsibilities to Tapics because the university should have known that James had a conflict of interest.

In addition to his work at BIO and Dalhousie, James is also one of the founders of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network (CSTN), an organization that works to conserve endangered sea turtles. His wife, Kathleen Martin, works as the network's executive director.

'Not acting in Tara Tapics' best interests'

The data Tapics used in her doctoral research was supplied by CSTN. While she hoped to use it to complete her PhD, James, according to evidence before the court, was only interested in producing a single research paper with that data and tried to steer Tapics' efforts in that direction.

"Dr. James' role with, and identification with, CSTN resulted in him not acting in Tara Tapics' best interests when he tried to control and direct the research as he saw fit for his/CSTN's purposes," Justice Suzanne Hood noted in her decision.

In its defence, the university claimed the problem was strictly with James.

Tapics was hoping to do a PhD on the leatherback sea turtle, which is an endangered species. (John Dickinson/CBC)

In her decision, Hood disagreed, saying the university clearly had a responsibility.

"It was negligent in not enforcing its conflict of interest policy. It had an obligation to do so," she wrote.

Hood calculated $48,750 as the amount of earnings Tapics potentially lost because she failed to complete her PhD at Dalhousie when she expected to do so.

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Blair Rhodes

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Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 34 years, the last 25 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety.