Sexual harassment, intimidation complaints spark outside investigation of MUN medical school

A letter sent by the dean of medicine reveals plans to use "assessors" from outside the university to look at complaints of what the students' union says is sexual harassment.

Investigator to examine school culture and reporting of sexual harassment, assault

The Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University has been hit with complaints of bullying, intimidation, harassment and sexual harassment. (Memorial University)

A faculty-wide letter sent by Memorial University's dean of medicine reveals plans to use an outside investigator to look at complaints that "may be of sexual nature and may constitute sexual harassment."

Margaret Steele sent the memo Thursday, saying there had been "several concerns" brought to her attention.

"These concerns have included allegations of bullying, intimidation, harassment and sexual harassment," she wrote.

While the investigator has not yet been chosen, the person will look at the culture and learning environment at MUN's medical faculty and how it responds to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

According to a spokesperson for the university, Steele was made aware of the complaints earlier this month and immediately contacted the school's sexual harassment advisor, Rhonda Shortall.

Margaret Steele, dean of medicine at Memorial University, says an investigator will examine the school's culture around sexual harassment. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

A request was then made for an outside investigator to complete an assessment of the faculty. The request was approved by school president Gary Kachanoski.

"I am committed to a learning environment free of bullying, intimidation, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault," Steele wrote. "Such a unit assessment will enable the Faculty of Medicine to improve our culture so that we can all learn and work in an environment that is safe and respectful."

Previous trouble with internal medicine

The faculty came under fire last spring, when its internal medicine program received a stiff warning by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

In a letter obtained by CBC News, the college noted problems involving harassment and intimidation between faculty members and students.

The college handed Memorial University a notice of intent to withdraw accreditation.

Following that notice, the university was given two years to fix the areas of concern before an external review in 2019 will determine the fate of the program.

It is unclear if the latest allegations of harassment stem from the internal medicine program but they are separate complaints from those lodged last spring.

"We will not be making any comments about the nature of the concerns or allegations until the review is completed, so as not to prejudice the work of the investigator," said David Sorensen, a spokesperson for the university.

Memorial University hopes to announce the name of the investigator within the next two weeks.

Student's union applauds review

Renata Lang, a member of the Memorial University Students' Union executive, first heard about some of the complaints two weeks ago.

She was having a conversation with a medical school student, who said the tactics used by faculty often leave the students feeling diminished.

Renata Lang is the director of external affairs with Memorial University's students' union. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"I guess it's the approach of trying to cultivate leadership or dedication or commitment through the students, but they often found it was very intimidating or isolating," Lang said Saturday.

While she can attest to the complaints of bullying and intimidation, Lang said she was not aware of any allegations that were sexual in nature.

Lang said the students' union is pleased with the hiring of an external investigator and hopes the process will be thorough.

"The administration are often there not just to run the university, but to protect things for their best interest," Lang said. "So we hope to see something positive come out of this."