U of M professor on leave, removed from federal agency after misconduct allegations

A prominent University of Manitoba professor is on leave and has been suspended from a federal government agency after a series of allegations of bullying and misconduct were made public this week.

Former faculty members say Peter Jones had inappropriate relationships with students

Peter Jones, director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba, is on leave pending the outcome of an investigation by the University of Manitoba. (umanitoba.ca)

A prominent University of Manitoba professor is under investigation and has been suspended from a federal government agency after a series of allegations of bullying and misconduct were made public this week.

The allegations against Peter Jones — who is currently on leave from his position as the director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals — include harassment and inappropriate relationships with students. At least three complaints have been made about his conduct in the past decade.

Leading the allegations against Jones is Peter Eck, an associate professor in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, who decided to break his silence after working alongside Jones at the Richardson Centre beginning in 2009.

During that period, he said he witnessed Jones bully other students, carry on inappropriate relationships with graduate students and create a hostile environment at the Richardson Centre.

Eck says Jones asked him to have a threesome with a graduate student — which he declined — and witnessed him favour students he had relationships with over other graduate students.

Peter Eck is associate professor in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba. He says he filed a verbal complaint with the university in 2013 about Peter Jones and then was moved to another department. (umanitoba.ca)

Jones helped start the centre in 2005, was often the face of the centre and raised millions of dollars in funding.

"He has like a huge extensive network all over Canada. He has power," Eck said

"He brought in millions of funding and he got the Richardsons' centre started."

Jones suspended from federal agency, removed from website

Jones's prestige led to his appointment to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's College of Reviewers in 2016 as one of 16 national chairs.

The CIHR is the Government of Canada's health research investment agency and it is in charge of investing about $1 billion each year to support health research.

Jones helped the advisory body oversee the peer review system that evaluates funding applications.

Jones was informed Thursday he was suspended — pending the outcome of the university's investigation — from his roles and all duties including any participation as a peer reviewer, following the reports first published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday.

Any mention of Jones, including his picture, was removed from the website.

Several requests for comment from Jones made by CBC were never returned.

"He is on leave," university spokesman John Danakas wrote in an email.

'I never heard back'

Citing privacy reasons, the university refused to disclose if it was a voluntary or involuntary leave, when he went on leave or confirm if there is an ongoing investigation.

Lynn Zapshala-Kelln, the university's vice-president (administration), said they cannot comment on specific investigations.  

"The University of Manitoba unequivocally condemns all forms of harassment and remains committed to building a culture of safety and respect," she wrote in a prepared statement.

"We recognize that responses in the past have not always met the standards we expect today. We are constantly reviewing and improving our policies and practices.

Eck filed a verbal complaint in 2013 with the dean of the faculty of graduate students about Jones's inappropriate relationships with students. Eck says as far as he knows, Jones never disclosed relationships he had with grad students.

The university's policy is that any close relationship between a student and faculty member must be disclosed and faculty must not have a role in grading or evaluating the student.

"And I never heard back," Eck said.

He says the same thing happened when he had a meeting with human resources about the issue.

Within months of filing complaints, Eck says he was removed from the Richardson Centre and moved into a different department.

"It was time to do it," Eck said when asked why he decided to go public with his story now.

"I sat down and I said, 'Would I recommend my daughter studying at the University of Manitoba? And I said, 'no' and I felt so embarrassed with myself."

Lawyer sends letters letter outlining investigation

On Dec. 6, Eck received an email from a Winnipeg lawyer who said she had been appointed to investigate a "University Instituted Investigation"

According to the university's Respectful Work and Learning Environment policy, this means an investigation is initiated because:

  • A non-compliant formal complaint was received, but disclosed a credible issue of sufficient importance to warrant an investigation;
  • Matters come to the attention of the designated officer that lead him or her to believe there has been a breach of sufficient importance to warrant an Investigation; or
  • It would be more practical to conduct a single broad investigation, than addressing a series of formal complaints from two or more individuals.

Eck said this was about Jones.

"We had actually had a phone conversation on Friday (Dec. 7). I outlined the cases against (Jones) I had first-hand knowledge of," he said.

Meridel Smith worked as the assistant to Peter Jones for almost two years. She filed a 73-page complaint with University of Manitoba, alleging Jones bullied her and created a toxic work environment. (Submitted)

Eck isn't alone in filing a complaint with university. In 2009, Meridel Smith filed a 73-page complaint to the university's equity officer under its respectful workplace and learning environment policy.

She describes in the letter experiencing two years of "bullying, intimidation, discrimination and deprecatory comments, to such an extent that I was forced to go on a three-month leave of absence from Oct. 18, 2008, to Jan. 20, 2009," she wrote on Sept. 9, 2009.

She described several instances that she said created a "toxic environment" when she worked as the assistant to Jones.

'I wanted to take my own life'

This included recommending to hire a female employee because the study volunteers, "would like to look at her." She also detailed how Jones would push her to "cut cheques" she felt were violating the university's billing procedures and forcing her to tears after confronting her about a disagreement between her and another employee.

"P. Jones' incessant abuse of authority, power, and confidences eventually drove me to seek medical attention and counselling for several months in order to deal with the debilitating effects of his action," she wrote.

In an interview Thursday, Smith said nothing ever came of the complaint to her knowledge. 

"There is a level of decorum that people need to use when supervising staff. There are human rights. You don't degrade people, you don't bully people," she said.

"I told my husband I wanted to take my own life because of the way this person made me feel and no one should be driven to that point, ever."

The CBC reached out to several other former employees at the Richardson Centre that corroborated the stories of Smith and Eck.

Grad students file verbal complaint around 2011

CBC also learned that a group of grad students from the university's nutrition program filed a verbal complaint around 2011 to the department head of the food and human nutritional sciences after they witnessed his relationship with another graduate student.

They felt the student was getting preferential treatment due to their relationship. They never heard anything further about their complaint, according to one of the students.

At least three complaints about Peter Jones were made by staff or students to someone within in the university. (CBC News)

One former administrative employee worked at the centre for six years — she requested not to be named for fear of professional retribution — and said she didn't have personal clashes with Jones, but watched how he interacted with graduate students.

His behaviour was well known within the university, she said.

"He picks on people," she said. "Everyone was quiet and scared at the time, especially the students because they don't know their future."  

When she read media reports that detailed the complaints of former staff, she said she wasn't surprised.

"Finally it is out," she said.


Read the university's full response from Lynn Zapshala-Kelln, the university's vice-president (administration):

The University of Manitoba unequivocally condemns all forms of harassment and remains committed to building a culture of safety and respect.

When President Barnard apologized in September to anyone who had experienced inappropriate behaviour at the University of Manitoba, he shared with the community that there were more investigations ongoing. His apology was intended to make it easier for other people to come forward and share their stories.

Ours is a culture that encourages individuals to report inappropriate behaviour.

We cannot speak to specific investigations. Our attention to confidentiality is intended to protect all those involved in any investigation and also to maintain the integrity of the process. We are committed to a process that encourages individuals to come forward to raise concerns. We recognize that keeping confidential the details of the investigative process makes it difficult for the University to publicly explain its responses relative to specific allegations, but maintaining the integrity of the process is critical in the long-term to ensuring all allegations are dealt with effectively and, ultimately, to combatting all forms of inappropriate behaviour.

When there are breaches of the behavioural policies, actions are taken to ensure the safety of the campus community. Any inappropriate behaviours will be responded to so that they come to an end, the campus remains a safe space, and those individuals responsible are disciplined appropriately.

Sexual harassment is not tolerated at the University of Manitoba.

We recognize that responses in the past have not always met the standards we expect today. We are constantly reviewing and improving our policies and practices. Our review of current processes and practices, being conducted by respected legal experts, is well underway and should be completed soon.

The University of Manitoba is committed to working with the entire campus community to support a culture of safety and respect.

About the Author

Kristin Annable

Reporter

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca