Sexual assault allegations among open investigations into faculty at University of Manitoba

The same day 30,000 students headed back to classes at the University of Manitoba, president David Barnard announced there are a number of staff members on leave due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

U of M president says a number of staff members on leave due to sexual misconduct allegations

The University of Manitoba says it is pursuing mandatory training for all faculty and staff on sexual violence, consent and power relationships. (CBC)

The same day 30,000 students headed back to classes at the University of Manitoba, president David Barnard announced a number of staff members are on leave due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

"Although I can't speak to specifics, I also want to tell you today that there are other investigations ongoing now," he told reporters at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The university said there are five open investigations into various allegations against faculty members. Two of the investigations involve allegations of sexual assault — one of which also involves allegations of sexual harassment, and the other involves allegations of personal harassment.

Another investigation also involves allegations of sexual harassment, and the other two involve human rights complaints.

Two of the faculty members are on leave. Barnard did not say which departments the faculty members are in, or when the complaints were made.

"We are committed to due process and to protecting the confidentiality of those with the courage to come forward," Barnard said.

The announcement came as Barnard stated a commitment to instituting mandatory training for all faculty and staff on sexual violence, consent and power relationships.

He also defended the university against claims it provided a letter of recommendation for former jazz professor Steve Kirby, who was involved in one of two high-profile incidents involving allegations against U of M professors in the past year.

Dr. Gary Allan Joseph Harding, a former assistant professor and associate dean in the faculty of medicine, recently lost his licence for six months for pursuing inappropriate sexual relationships with two students.

The Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons found the Winnipeg oncologist made advances with two male students, which progressed to regular conversation through text messages, invitations to his home and even a paid flight out of the city.

Kirby left the university in June 2017 after being on leave for six months, while the university investigated complaints of harassment. He was then hired at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Steve Kirby left the University of Manitoba in June 2017 and was then fired from Boston's Berklee College of Music in November 2017, after that school learned of the harassment allegations back in Winnipeg. (CBC)

But in November 2017, the U.S. college fired him after several U of M students and former students told the school's administration that they had been harassed by him during his time in Manitoba.

Kirby has denied all the claims against him.

'Deeply sorry'

"Incidents of inappropriate behaviour at this university have been reported and investigated over the last few years," Barnard said on Wednesday.

"Inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus is unacceptable, and, quite honestly, I find such conduct to be horrible and appalling.

"Today, I am apologizing to students who have experienced such inappropriate behaviour. I am deeply sorry."

He, along with Susan Gottheil, the U of M's vice-provost (students), said the university has been expanding its support services for students, both in how to identify and how to report any form of sexual violence.

Students who spoke to CBC News said the university addressed the issue during orientation assemblies, informing them what to do in cases of assault or harassment. The students said news of allegations against faculty members is alarming, but generally they felt safe.

"I'm a second-year student so I've only dealt with a handful of professors, but for the most part I've felt pretty safe and I've had a comfortable relationship with my professors where it stayed professional," said Kaezih ​Bobier.

The same day 30,000 students headed back to classes at the University of Manitoba, president David Barnard announced a number of staff members are on leave due to allegations of sexual misconduct. 2:26

She said she feels uneasy knowing there are ongoing investigations into faculty members.

"You think it's a safe place, because these are professionals. They're supposed to be here to help you, and help you learn, through your education. So to know that there's been investigations and I haven't even heard of it, to think that it's just been happening," she said.

Taylor Peltier-McKinney, who is in her first year, called news of the investigations "concerning."

"As students, we feel safe here and having somebody who has that kind of power, it's kind of nerve-wracking," she said.

A student union official called the allegations against faculty "discomfiting and frankly reprehensible."

Vice-president of advocacy Sarah Bonner-Proulx ​said the union provides students with consent culture training, but more needs to be done to protect students. 

"We need to be educating more than just the students, more than the ones that tend to be time and time again the victims of these types of incidents," she said. 

The students' union will push the university to set up a sexual violence resource centre to give students centralized and accessible support services.

'A mistake that must not be repeated'

Barnard insisted Kirby was never recommended for any position after leaving the U of M, but said some letters of employment "could be construed as supportive."

"I discovered last Wednesday that we have issued letters of employment to individuals that contained more information than I consider appropriate," he said.

"The document provided to Steve Kirby as a letter of employment — that I understood to be a mere chronology of his time at the university — in fact, also included an outline of activities and achievements, that, though factual, could be construed as supportive. The inclusion of this material was a mistake that must not be repeated."

More recently, it was revealed the U of M paid Kirby $155,944 in 2017 despite his leave and resignation from the university.

Barnard didn't discuss that but Jakob Sanderson, president of the university's student union, did raise it on Wednesday.

Clearly this is quite a prevalent issue on our campus, unfortunately.- Jakob   Sanderson , U of M president

"It's discomforting to know, not only was he continuously employed by the university while continuing sexual misconduct with students, but then that he was also given quite a generous buyout and that it was kept under wraps," said Sanderson.

There were multiple reports made to the university about alleged sexual harassment by Kirby over a long period before disciplinary hearings were held, Sanderson said.

"We respect that there are legal processes that need to be followed … and sometimes that means it's not always going to be the most transparent process as perhaps we would like. But the university's No. 1 concern should be student safety and ensuring students see our campus as a safe and welcoming environment.

"When swift action's not taken on these matters and then we find someone is … given a generous settlement, [that] does not send the right message to students."

'Should've been done earlier'

The mandatory training is something the student union has been suggesting for some time and is pleased to see being addressed, he said.

However, Sanderson isn't about to offer any ovations.

"We're not interested in trying to shower the administration with praise for doing something that could have and probably should've been done earlier," he said, adding he wants to see the administration "put actions behind their words" and implement the training as soon as possible.

In addition to the mandatory training, Sanderson also wants to see the university "make a serious commitment by establishing a sexual violence student support centre" where students can go in a time of crisis. 

The university currently has a student counselling centre but it's not enough, Sanderson said, noting he has heard from administrators at the centre who say they hear about five cases of sexual assault or sexual violence every week.

"That's over 250 cases over a year. I think that's more than enough that we need a dedicated centre to support that," Sanderson said, clarifying those complaints aren't necessarily related to faculty.

"Clearly this is quite a prevalent issue on our campus, unfortunately."

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Nelly Gonzalez