Manitoba·CBC Investigates

U of Manitoba was warned about former jazz prof's behaviour years before he left

The University of Manitoba was warned repeatedly about concerns over the harassing behaviour of its star jazz professor, Steve Kirby, during a period stretching back many years.

Many people brought forward concerns about Steve Kirby, who left U of M after sexual harassment investigation

Amid allegations of sexual harassment, the University of Manitoba said jazz Prof. Steve Kirby retired in late June after being on leave for six months. (CBC)

The University of Manitoba was warned repeatedly about concerns over the harassing behaviour of its star jazz professor, Steve Kirby, during a period stretching back many years.

CBC has spoken with nearly a dozen former students and members of the university community. They say even though the concerns regarding Kirby's behaviour were well known and reported to the university for nearly a decade, the university failed to stop his offending behaviour.

The University of Manitoba said Steve Kirby was on leave from the university for six months before retiring this past June. He's since taken a job with Berklee College of Music in Boston, but that school has placed him on leave while it conducts its own investigation.

CBC has now seen two internal reports written by the University of Manitoba's own investigator in June 2017 which concluded that Kirby's conduct constituted "sexual harassment" and would have created an "intimidating, humiliating or offensive work or learning environment" for female students.

A former jazz program student CBC is calling "Holly" says sexual harassment was a daily occurrence with Kirby. CBC is protecting her identity because of the nature of the allegations.

"Anything from catching him staring and feeling that he was undressing me with his eyes, to him giving me a hug and having to move my head away quickly to the side so that his lips would land on my neck and not my mouth," she said.

"I remember waking up in the morning knowing that I had a lesson with him and trying to dress accordingly in a way that wouldn't show off my body and warrant unwanted attention from him, but it never worked, no matter what I wore."

She said once in a private lesson, she and Kirby were sitting on a couch and Kirby put his hand on her thigh.

"If someone hadn't knocked on the door I don't know how much farther things would have gone," she said.

Angry with outcome of investigation

In an internal University of Manitoba report, she made five allegations of sexual harassment against the professor. The investigator determined they all had merit.

She's angry with the outcome of the investigation.

"It's not good enough. He now gets away scot-free as being retired and he can now go on and pursue other jobs, and he has. And that is not justice for students," she said. "That is protecting appearances."

She believes Kirby's star power and popularity among donors was a factor in why the behaviour was allowed to continue, despite many complaints.

"It's a scandal. It's embarrassing, so to speak. Their celebrated star has fallen, so to speak. And I think that definitely played a huge role," she said.

"These behaviours were not only condoned, but he was also celebrated and promoted and seen as the face of the program. And that's just not OK."

She calls the university's sexual harassment policies "old" and "tired" and says it is time for change.

"They say the supports are for us — the students — but they aren't, truly. In my opinion, training on sexual harassment and assault and how to recognize it and how to stop it should be mandatory for all staff, and potentially students as well."

Human rights complaint

A complaint was filed to the University of Manitoba's Human Rights and Advisory Services office against the jazz professor in 2012 but it was quashed because it was filed too late to meet the timetable requirements of the university's complaints policy.

"I probably lost about 20 pounds, Not eating. Sleeping about two or three hours a night," said a student CBC is calling "Mary," who filed the complaint after enduring what she says were years of bullying and disrespectful behaviour from the man who was supposed to be teaching her.

"Women in the program were expected to meet a very narrow-minded stereotype of what a woman should be," she said. "Hyperfeminine, always in a tight dress, showing a lot of skin, wearing makeup, moving seductively while on stage. There was an understanding that as a woman in the jazz program, you were less-than."

In an internal U of M report obtained by CBC, Steve Kirby denied 'all claims made of any sexual innuendo or outright sexual approaches.' (CBC)
She filed the complaint in January of 2012. She says it was accompanied by letters of support from 11 other students and three former faculty members. Six months later, the university tossed it out on a technicality.

"It is my conclusion that the complainant's allegations of personal harassment that transpired prior to Jan. 23, 2011 are time-barred and ought not to be considered," a lawyer's assessment of the complaint read.

"I do not make this decision lightly, especially given that several of her allegations in the May to December 2010 time frame do trigger the base definition of personal harassment."

Mary said she took the news "very hard."

"The hope was for the university and the faculty of music to step into the jazz program and to stop the inappropriate behaviour. Full stop, immediately," she said.

Nonetheless, she shared the results with the dean of music, Edmund Dawe, in hopes he would take some action.

Mary said two years later, when Kirby was up for a promotion, she sent another letter to the dean outlining her concerns.

She said Kirby was promoted.

"On numerous occasions, these concerns were brought forward, both at an internal level and outside of the program, outside of the faculty. There were many many opportunities to step in — to step up to their responsibilities to protect students and to address this much earlier on," she said.

"Unfortunately, they did not, and in my opinion that is part of what allowed the inappropriate behaviours to escalate and to really define the culture of the jazz program."

U of M had 'infatuation' with Kirby

Susan (not her real name) wasn't a student at the university but she was a member of its community, and says she was bullied by Kirby and felt unsafe around him. She personally spoke with the dean of music in 2012 about her concerns that Kirby created a culture of fear and intimidation and that he violated boundaries, but says nothing happened.

"It was avoidable and reprehensive," she said of the current scandal.

"You complain to a person who is supposed to do their job and their inaction is a signal that maybe it's not legitimate."

She said Dawe did not tell her about other avenues for complaints or the university's protocols or policies.

"I was never told once by any person I mentioned this to, specifically Edmund, that there was protocol," she said. "I was never even given the option."

She said she knows of faculty members who left because of Kirby's behaviour. She believes the administration didn't want to investigate their star professor.

"It was almost like an infatuation with Steve Kirby and how much money he could bring in, about how he charmed the donors and how he was building the jazz mecca of Canada," she said.

"It was like being part of a cult, and you were either in the cult or out of the cult."

Susan said the university needs to support the women who were hurt because of its lack of action to protect them.

She's also critical of the way the university handled the 2017 investigation.

"Not broadening the pool was a mistake," she said, adding the university should have done "some kind of an outreach to additional people who may have experienced bullying, sexual harassment or harassment of any other kind under this kind of authority."

Policies work, U of M says

CBC has repeatedly asked the University of Manitoba for an interview with the dean of music and the president of the university. Those requests have not been granted. 

The U of M's executive director of public affairs, John Danakas, said the dean would not be able to speak to the investigation or any specific employee due to privacy legislation. 

In an email, Danakas told CBC that Dean Dawe did say that generally speaking, "Any behavioural complaints that come to the dean's office are dealt with directly with the individual about whom the complaint has been made. This would involve speaking directly with the individual about the details of the complaint and taking the necessary steps to attempt to resolve the matter."

On Friday, the university sent a note from president David Barnard to all staff and students. The university stood by its sexual harassment and sexual assault policies.

"The policies have been tested, and they work," Barnard wrote. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't be reviewed. They can, and will be.

"As has occurred recently, the effectiveness of our policies will attract scrutiny," he wrote. "Although I cannot speak to any individual case, I do want to take this opportunity to emphasize the university's unwavering commitment to fostering a safe, inclusive and respectful environment."

Steve Kirby has not responded to CBC's many attempts to contact him.

In an internal University of Manitoba report obtained by CBC, he denied "all claims made of any sexual innuendo or outright sexual approaches."

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