UPEI board of governors launches third-party review of new allegations involving ex-president

The UPEI board of governors is launching a third-party investigation into allegations of misconduct involving the university's former president, Alaa Abd-El-Aziz.

New details emerge of discussions around contract renewals for Alaa Abd-El-Aziz

Board chairman Pat Sinnott said in an email to the UPEI community Wednesday that the board learned about allegations of workplace misconduct a day before Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, pictured here, resigned. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

The UPEI Board of Governors is launching a third-party investigation into allegations that emerged Monday involving "workplace misconduct" connected to the university's former president, Alaa Abd-El-Aziz.

On Tuesday night, Abd-El-Aziz resigned from his position effective immediately, saying in a letter to the campus community that he was retiring due to concerns about his health.

But on Wednesday, board chair Pat Sinnott said in an email to the UPEI community that the board had learned about allegations of workplace misconduct on Monday, and brought them to the attention of Abd-El-Aziz that same day.

"The university's comprehensive Fair Treatment Policy has been invoked and, in addition, the board will undertake an independent, third-party review to determine the facts surrounding these allegations," the email said.

"Upon completion of that review, the board will respond in a manner consistent with expectations of privacy and transparency."

Sinnott said the board takes these matters seriously, and that it will remain focused on supporting students while the review unfolds.

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Two students walking in front of the main building on the UPEI campus.
A statement from UPEI Board of Governors chairman Pat Sinnott on Wednesday promised a third-party review of new allegations of workplace misconduct involving Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, adding: 'The University of Prince Edward Island is committed to providing a safe, respectful, and positive environment for all members of the UPEI community.' (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"The University of Prince Edward Island is committed to providing a safe, respectful, and positive environment for all members of the UPEI community," the email said. "The steps that are being taken represent that commitment and will ensure UPEI's values are reflected in all that we do."

Past allegations

This is the first time the university's board has publicly acknowledged any issues with Abd-El-Aziz since 2013, when it reached settlements with two employees who'd filed complaints of sexual harassment with the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission. 

At the time, board of governors chairman Tom Cullen said the complaints involved "inappropriate comments." 

The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women was among the community groups and individuals expressing concern about what had led to the settlements when Abd-El-Aziz's contract came up for renewal in 2015. They put their concerns into writing when the board of governors called for input, saying a person in a position of power should be held to a high standard of behaviour.   

UPEI economics Prof. Jim Sentance was on the Board of Governors when Alaa Abd-El-Aziz's contract was renewed in 2015. 'It wasn't an easy decision,' he told CBC in an interview last month. (CBC)

"It wasn't an easy decision," said Jim Sentance, who was a member of the board of governors at that time. He told CBC that he and the rest of the board weighed the president's achievements to date in the position "versus this one obvious character flaw that erupted into an incident."

He added that there was concern about an image problem for the university, but said the board decided the damage had already been done and the renewal should go ahead "as long as nothing else happened."

Abd-El-Aziz's term was renewed two more times after that, in 2018 and again less than a month ago. The community was not invited to submit feedback either time, and in the most recent case, the university's unions found out after the fact, along with the student body and non-teaching staff.

With regard to the 2013 settlements, a CBC News investigation this fall confirmed that both of them had involved the use of non-disclosure agreements, in which employees agree to remain silent about issues in return for compensation. If they speak out later, they face the threat of legal retribution for breach of contract.   

On Friday, CBC reported concerns from former staff members and women's advocates, who said among other things that the use of non-disclosure agreements had created a "culture of silence and fear" on campus.  

Since that story was posted and aired, CBC has heard from more than a dozen current and former UPEI staff members expressing similar concerns and sharing details of their own stories. 

Fired athletic director speaks

One of them was Chris Huggan, who until August of 2020 was UPEI's athletics director. He had held the post for six years and received two performance evaluations during that time, both of which were positive.

"The one part of my job that was very challenging was trying to deal with the administration," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "We would share our agenda items for meetings. It would never be shared in return. There was little to no communication or collaboration on decision-making. They would hand us decisions and we were expected to follow them."

After he "strongly opposed" elements of UPEI's COVID-19 planning, Huggan said he was "blindsided" and fired when he attended a budget meeting at the university. He showed CBC documents confirming the university had exercised its right under the terms of his contract to fire him "without cause." 

Former UPEI athletic director Chris Huggan says Alaa Abd-El-Aziz 'achieved some great things,' but also presided over 'a very toxic work environment.' (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Huggan said the university gave him a termination agreement that included a non-disclosure clause, but after getting legal advice, he refused to sign off on it.  

"And over the course of the next year, so many people reached out sharing similar stories It became almost therapeutic in some ways — not that we wanted to dwell on each other's pain. But there are so many people who have been mistreated, similar fortune to mine, those who are visionary, those who see how things can be improved and those who challenge authority are either gone or walked away. And there's a lot of good people lost." 

Every path you try to follow, they've got control. And those who challenge it are no longer there.— Chris Huggan

Asked if that might just come down to different opinions on the best way to manage a large institution, Huggan said: "Quite possibly."

He added: "To Alaa's credit, he achieved some great things. Some programs, some infrastructure, some international recruitment — great things. He worked extremely hard. But underlying all of that [was] the way people were treated." 

Looking ahead, Huggan said he hopes the university follows through with its pledge of an independent review of the latest allegations. He also thinks UPEI needs "a review of workplace wellness, of policies, of the pathway for an employee who is struggling and having difficulties."

"Every path you try to follow, they've got control. And those who challenge it are no longer there."

With files from Kerry Campbell