Harassment, bullying, racism allegations against 2 senior leaders at B.C. university under investigation
Thompson Rivers University says complaints against Matt Milovick and Larry Phillips are being taken seriously
UPDATE — Jan. 19, 2023: A statement released by Thompson Rivers University on Jan. 19, 2023 confirms that Matt Milovick has been cleared of all allegations and remains in his role. A report released on Jan. 17 found that 10 allegations against Larry Phillips were substantiated. He no longer works for the university.
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Two senior administrators at a B.C. university are under investigation after several current and former staff and faculty members came forward with allegations of anti-Indigenous racism and bullying behaviour. One of them is also accused of sexual harassment.
Matt Milovick, the vice-president of finance and administration at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), and his subordinate Larry Phillips, the assistant vice-president of people and culture, are accused of fostering a toxic workplace at the Kamloops university, according to documents obtained by CBC News and interviews with more than a dozen people. The allegations against Phillips include sexual harassment.
Those who've complained about the two men also allege university leadership is dragging its feet on the investigation, and they've asked — unsuccessfully — for the B.C. government to step in.
The terms of reference for the school's investigation, led by lawyers Kelly Serbu of Halifax and Sharon Cartmill-Lane of Victoria, say it will include possible violations of, among other things, the B.C. Human Rights Code, TRU's memorandum of understanding with the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, workplace safety regulations and the school's policies on diversity, sexualized violence and harassment.
The investigation was launched in response to a Feb. 8 letter from an anonymous group addressed to TRU's board of governors along with other executives and deans, according to the terms of reference document.
The Feb. 8 message says the authors have been in contact with at least 11 current and former TRU employees "who report directly witnessing, or being the victims of, discriminatory conduct, discriminatory statements and/or harassment" by Milovick and Phillips.
None of the allegations have been proven.
CBC News has reached out to both Milovick and Phillips with detailed questions about the allegations against them. Phillips has yet to respond.
Milovick said in an email that he received the terms of reference for the investigation on Monday and he acknowledges there will be an investigation into his professional conduct. He did not respond to any of the specific allegations.
"I welcome the opportunity to fully participate in this process. I will not be making any further comments at this time," Milovick wrote.
A statement from TRU about the investigation says the university is taking the matter seriously and formed a sub-committee immediately after learning of the allegations.
"The sub-committee acted quickly and went to great lengths to ensure that all these independent resources have extensive experience handling similar matters, while having no prior relationships with TRU," Marilyn McLean, the chair of the university's board of governors, said in the statement.
"Furthermore, the sub-committee has worked together with the independent and Indigenous investigators and legal counsel to put all appropriate and defensible safeguards in place for the complainants in order to … maintain the integrity of the investigation."
She added that until the investigation is complete and unless the allegations are substantiated, it would be "unfair and unjust" to take any action against Milovick and Phillips.
Allegations of anti-Indigenous racism
Those who spoke about their experiences working with Milovick and Phillips detailed a long list of concerns about their attitudes and behaviour toward Indigenous people and co-workers, as well as allegations of sexual harassment by Phillips. CBC has agreed to protect the identities of most of the people who spoke out because of fear of retaliation.
Some have alleged hearing deep tones of anti-Indigenous racism from both men.
One Indigenous person who worked at TRU for years, and whom CBC has agreed not to name, claimed Milovick said in a meeting that "he didn't think that Tk'emlups had any right ... or Indigenous people didn't have any say into what he did on campus because they historically lived lower in the valley."
The same person alleged that in another meeting, "Matt had asked what we thought of this 'Indigenization bullshit' and … he then made some derogatory comment like: 'Welcome to Indigenous University' — or 'Welcome to f--king Indigenous University.' "
The longtime employee shared their concerns with a colleague after these events, and that colleague has confirmed the account in the same detail.
Others at TRU allege Phillips also made anti-Indigenous and racist comments on several occasions.
"I was shocked when Larry made anti-Indigenous comments, like: 'We fired a bunch of Indigenous people because they didn't know how to work at a university. They wouldn't show up at work because they were out hunting or fishing,' " said another former employee, whom CBC has also agreed not to name.
The former employee said they told Phillips that was an inappropriate comment, and he asked why.
"I can't believe I have to tell the person who is in charge of human resources that's inappropriate," the former employee said.
They told at least three colleagues at TRU about this interaction, and they have all corroborated these allegations.
Claims of workplace behaviour, inappropriate conduct
There are also claims that Milovick and Phillips fostered an unsafe and toxic workplace.
Deanna Brkovich was hired as a talent acquisition consultant in TRU's human resources department in 2019, and described her experience there as something like living in The Twilight Zone.
She said she was constantly surprised at the kind of language and behaviour that was tolerated, and alleged Phillips would make disparaging and slandering remarks in front of others, even in large staff meetings, including calling staff members stupid or incompetent.
"Larry was quite slandering of other people within the organization at all levels," Brkovich said.
Similar concerns have been raised about Milovick.
CBC has spoken to seven people who described Milovick losing his temper in meetings.
They described him as shaking in anger, swearing, rocking back and forth, becoming red in the face and yelling in professional settings.
Meanwhile, there are several allegations of sexual or otherwise inappropriate behaviour from Phillips.
One person who spoke with CBC on the condition of confidentiality said she attended a TRU event at a Kamloops restaurant when Phillips approached her and struck up a conversation.
She said he asked her if she had a boyfriend, and when she said no, he began "grilling me about my love life," which made her uncomfortable.
"He said, 'You're such an attractive young lady, like sometimes I see somebody walking across campus and I think, hmm, that's a good-looking girl. And then I look closer and I realize that it's you,'" she said.
CBC has corroborated her account with two TRU staff members whom she spoke to immediately after this alleged incident.
Advanced education minister declines to intervene
In an Aug. 6 email to B.C. Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training Anne Kang, the group representing the complainants write that nearly six months after notifying university leadership of the allegations, TRU's sub-committee has made "no progress."
They also say they're concerned the complainants' identities will not be protected during the investigation, which they argue is necessary for a trauma-informed process.
The email calls on the province to step in and assume oversight of the investigation.
"The TRU executive and board of governors have proven incapable of responding effectively and appropriately to serious allegations of racist and misogynistic behaviour on the part of two senior leaders, Matt Milovick and Larry Phillips," the email reads.
Kang's ministry responded on Sept.1, saying the government does not intervene on matters concerning allegations of misconduct, and it's up to TRU to investigate.
The response goes on to say that if the complainants are dissatisfied with the results of the university's investigation, they can file a complaint with the provincial ombudsperson.
The university has said that it is necessary for reasons of fairness for Milovick and Phillips to know the identities of their accusers.
In the TRU statement released this week, the university says results of the investigation are expected in the first quarter of 2022 but may take longer.
"While expediency is important, thoroughness is equally important, which means that the process will not be rushed if that will sacrifice or compromise the sub-committee's ability to fully investigate these allegations," McLean, the board chair, said.