Montreal·CBC Investigates

Students, staff left in the dark after Concordia's investigation of prof's behaviour

University investigators were told Jim Pfaus, an international expert in the psychology of sexual behaviour, pursued, dated or had sexual relationships with students in his classes or under his supervision. Pfaus retired at the end of 2018.

Investigators looked into the impact of Jim Pfaus's sexual relationships with his students

Jim Pfaus, a psychology professor at Concordia University for 26 years, retired in 2018. (Concordia University)

Several former students and colleagues are angry and disappointed Concordia University has not disclosed the outcome of an internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate behaviour by a tenured professor who retired late last year.

Jim Pfaus, a prolific researcher and internationally recognized expert in the psychology of sexual behaviour, had taught at the university for 26 years.

Faculty and students learned at the end of 2018 that Pfaus had retired. Pfaus posted on social media at the time that he was moving on, to a research centre in Mexico.

Pfaus "gets to control the narrative about what happened," said one former student.

"It's infuriating."

The questions surrounding Pfaus's abrupt departure come as Concordia is already under scrutiny for allegations of inappropriate relationships, academic favouritism and sexual misconduct involving some faculty in its creative writing program.

Complaint triggers internal investigation

CBC Montreal Investigates spoke to several people who had direct knowledge of Pfaus's behaviour and relationships with students, dating back nearly 15 years.

Many of these sources were familiar with the university's investigation. CBC is not naming them because they fear professional repercussions.

The sources paint a picture of a professor they believe repeatedly crossed appropriate boundaries with his students.

In the fall of 2017, an undergraduate student in one of Pfaus's classes complained to officials in the department of psychology about the professor's behaviour.

According to several sources, the student alleged Pfaus was sending her inappropriate messages. They were not sexually explicit, but one source said Pfaus appeared to be seeking something other than a professor-student relationship.

A faculty member filed a formal complaint with the university on the student's behalf, in order to protect the woman's identity.

Investigation widens

The university's investigation appears to have looked beyond that single complaint. Investigators questioned both faculty members and current and former students about Pfaus's behaviour, CBC has learned.

Multiple sources told CBC that witnesses were asked what they knew about Pfaus's intimate relationships with students, whether that impacted his teaching and the management of his neurobiology research lab, and how he behaved in his lab or at academic conferences.

Investigators were told Pfaus pursued, dated or had sexual relationships with students in his classes or under his supervision.

At the outset, sources said the complainant and subsequent witnesses were informed they would not know the outcome of the investigation due to privacy laws.

In this screengrab from a YouTube video, Jim Pfaus is discussing the neurobiology of female sexual response. (YouTube)

Conflict of interest?

Many sources said they viewed Pfaus's sexual liaisons with students as an abuse of power. They considered it a clear conflict of interest for Pfaus to be sleeping with students he graded or supervised.

They also believed these relationships led to the appearance of academic favouritism. Pfaus gave the women he was involved with more attention, they said, doing lab work for them, streamlining access to research animals and inviting them to prestigious conferences.

"We did not have his professional attention," said one former student.

However, at the time, Concordia did not have a specific policy or guidelines discouraging professor-student romantic or sexual relationships.

Under revised guidelines released in 2018, instructors are now told to avoid romantic or sexual relationships with students or declare them to the university.

American universities such as Yale and Harvard have taken a harder line, formally banning such liaisons.

"We're a bit more cowardly here," said Martine Delvaux, a professor of literature at Université du Québec à Montreal who has called for a similar ban in Quebec institutions of higher learning.

Delvaux, who sat on a UQAM committee that examined this issue, questions whether true consent is possible in what she sees as a stark power imbalance.

UQAM literature Prof. Martine Delvaux has called for a ban on student-teacher sexual relationships, similar to that imposed by Harvard and Yale. (Valérie Lebrun)

Even if the professor isn't directly teaching the student or overseeing the student's graduate work, they can still wield a lot of influence, said Delvaux.

A professor might be "part of publishing houses; he's on reading committees; he will evaluate demand for scholarships, T-A [teaching assistant] -ships," Delvaux said. "It's endless."

There's also the economic disparity, said Delvaux.

"Professors have cash, students don't, and that discrepancy is really important."

Often, once the relationship is over, the student ends up changing universities or quitting altogether.

"Their whole life is taxed by those relationships," said Delvaux.

Faculty-student relationships risky

Shirley Katz, a retired law and humanities professor from York University, said while it might be difficult to declare an outright ban on teacher-student sexual relationships, universities have a role in educating both students and staff about the risks. (submitted by Shirley Katz)

Shirley Katz, a retired law and humanities professor from York University, believes sexual relationships between a student and instructor are not just inappropriate, but unprofessional and unethical.

Katz, who has trained university investigators across Canada on how to look into suspected sexual misconduct, said it would be difficult to declare an outright ban on these relationships. But she said universities have a role in educating both students and staff about the risks involved.

Not only can the student end up feeling exploited, but there can be a spillover effect if other students are aware of the relationship, she said.

"There may be a perception that the student in question is getting an unfair advantage or having opportunities that they don't have," said Katz.

Messy fallout

At least two of Pfaus's romantic relationships with students resulted in police complaints and restraining orders against his ex-girlfriends, which restricted their movements on campus.

Concordia's administration was made aware of those situations. In 2010, following one on-campus incident involving an ex-girlfriend, the university investigated to see if disciplinary action against Pfaus was warranted. The outcome of that investigation is unknown.

"His personal life spilled over into the lab constantly," said a former student.

A year earlier, in 2009, a group of graduate students approached several of Concordia's psychology professors who were in charge of the department's management. They filed a written complaint about Pfaus's alleged sexual relationships with undergraduate students in classes he taught.

The complainants also alleged Pfaus was in a conflict of interest, co-supervising his girlfriend in the research lab and neglecting his academic duties.

Jim Pfaus ran a neuroscience research lab at Concordia University. (Concordia University)

There was no discussion as to how Concordia would handle the complaint, sources said, but the students were assured anonymity. However, a short time later, Pfaus angrily confronted the complainants, sources told CBC.

One source said the students felt betrayed and powerless.

"The university really screwed us. They threw us back to the wolves: that's really how I felt," said a former student.

They believed the university's failure to follow up with them on their complaint sent a clear message that it was pointless to raise concerns about Pfaus on campus.

"It gave him the green light to continue."

"We literally just continued like a dysfunctional family," said another former student.

Placed on administrative leave

The university's investigators started meeting with witnesses in regard to the latest known complaint in January 2018.

Pfaus continued to teach classes and supervise graduate students. By summer, however, he was placed on paid administrative leave.

Sources say after that, the professor was told not to communicate with his current students unless they contacted him first.

Pfaus never returned to teach at the university or work in his research lab.

Last fall, his classes were reassigned to other professors, and his graduate students found new supervisors.

By November, Pfaus posted his departure from Concordia on social media.

Pfaus's colleagues were told he had retired at a department of psychology staff meeting in December.

After last year's complaints of sexual misconduct in the university's creative writing program, some sources said they believe the university didn't want more bad publicity.

"It feels like they are sort of protecting him and protecting themselves," said one person. "They could have said he's an example of what we don't tolerate."

Confidentiality, privacy

Lawyer Julius Grey, who represents Jim Pfaus, said his client cannot speak to CBC due to a confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement between him and Concordia University. (CBC)

Pfaus's lawyer, Julius Grey, says his client cannot answer CBC's questions because the information we requested is covered by a "confidentiality clause of a settlement agreement" between Pfaus and Concordia, which neither side can breach.

Due to confidentiality and privacy laws, Concordia University said it could not confirm an investigation even took place.

It would only say Pfaus is no longer an employee of the university.

"We cannot divulge any information surrounding potential or actual investigations, including the results of any investigations or any other employment matters," said Fiona Downey, a university spokesperson.

Downey laid out, in general terms, how the university deals with complaints of sexual misconduct and sexual violence.

"Any allegations of misconduct are investigated thoroughly, and following investigation, when warranted, may result in disciplinary measures up to and including possible dismissal," she said in an emailed statement.

'Cast aside'

Last month, Quebec's Education Ministry said it has no immediate plans to change the privacy laws that result in complainants or witnesses not being told the outcome of an investigation of a professor.

For those familiar with the investigation into Pfaus, that comes as a huge disappointment.

"I understand the need to maintain privacy, however, it seems very short-sighted," said one source.

Some people put their careers and professional relationships on the line to provide information, sources told CBC. They believe the university's policy of staying silent creates more questions and rumours.

"It doesn't instill confidence," said UQAM's Martine Delvaux. Indeed, she says, the privacy laws may actually have a chilling effect.

If students know going in they will never find out the outcome of an investigation, it may actively discourage them from laying a complaint in the first place.

About the Author

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

With files from Anna Sosnowski