UPEI workplace harassment review could include those who signed NDAs
Review to explore if previous NDAs can be cancelled
The University of Prince Edward Island has laid out the ground rules for a wide-reaching review into how it deals with cases of harassment and discrimination, and into its use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with those who come forward with complaints.
The university announced the third-party review and investigation in December, one day after former president Alaa Abd-El-Aziz announced his sudden resignation.
That resignation came on Dec. 7, the same day the university informed Abd-El-Aziz of a fresh allegation of workplace misconduct against him.
Two former staff had brought forward complaints of sexual harassment against Abd-El-Aziz through the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission in 2013. The university reached settlements with those staff which included NDAs.
Provincial legislation setting new rules
UPEI's board of governors hired a Toronto-based law firm with experience investigating cases of workplace harassment, Rubin Thomlinson LLP, to conduct the review.
According to the terms of reference, one goal is to examine the use of NDAs by the university to determine the rationale behind their use, and to consider "whether the university can and should take steps to have individual complainants released from their obligations under NDAs entered in respect of allegations of harassment or discrimination."
P.E.I. is set to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to limit the use of NDAs in cases of workplace harassment and discrimination when a private member's bill comes into effect within the next four months.
That bill, introduced by Green MLA Lynne Lund and passed unanimously in November, will only allow a non-disclosure agreement to be imposed in a case of harassment or discrimination if the person who made the allegations wishes to enter into one.
It also sets clear requirements for NDAs before they're considered to be enforceable, and introduces mechanisms for those who do enter such agreements to be able to waive their confidentiality in the future.
Legal experts and organizations on and off the Island have voiced their support for the bill, saying NDAs have been used as a tool to silence victims.
As part of its review, Rubin Thomlinson has set up a confidential email address to which current and former students, faculty and staff can send complaints, concerns or experiences they wish to share.
The law firm is asking those who feel they can't participate in the review because they signed an NDA with the university to reach out, saying UPEI "is committed to trying to ensure that all those who are interested in participating" will have the opportunity to do so.
Besides examining the circumstances around the latest allegation of misconduct against the former president, the review will also examine UPEI's fair treatment and sexual violence policies, and provide recommendations on how the university can "ensure a safe, respectful and positive environment for all."
Contract renewed weeks before resignation
The terms of reference make no specific reference to how the university's board of governors has handled issues of harassment or the allegations against the former president.
The president reported to the board.
Concerns were raised in the community as far back as 2015 over the allegations which led to the initial two settlements with former staff. Groups, including the P.E.I. Advisory Council for the Status of Women, asked the board not to renew the president's contract.
- CBC InvestigatesUse of NDAs has created 'culture of silence and fear' on UPEI campus, former prof says
But the board continued to do that, providing extensions in 2015, 2018 and again just weeks before Abd-El-Aziz resigned.
The university has not disclosed any terms around that resignation. A statement from Abd-El-Aziz issued before the board disclosed the new allegation described his leaving office as a retirement for health reasons.
The university has not said whether the former president was eligible for severance.