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Ontario author files suit against UBC over harassment policy

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

The University of British Columbia is being sued by an Ontario-based author who claims the school breached a contract by failing to provide her with a safe working environment while she was Green College’s journalist-in-residence in fall 2004.

Green College is unique at UBC: a traditional-style residence with a good dining hall that is designed to bring a mix of interdisciplinary grad students, post-doctoral fellows, visiting professors, and visiting scholars together to exchange ideas.

Laura Robinson, whose books include Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport and Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality, filed her claim in B.C. Small Claims Court, September 19.No trial date is set.

In her claim, Ms. Robinson alleges UBC’s administration failed to enforce polices that would have protected her from “harassment and discrimination" by the college’s princial, Keith Benson. She claims she was denied academic freedom because Prof. Benson interefered with projects that were supposed to take place during her residency.

The two had a brief relationship during the previous spring, but she decided to end it.

Midway through her residency, she went to UBC’s equity office to make a sexual harassment complaint. The advisor took her complaint to the dean of graduate studies (which oversees Green College) and then to the university’s legal counsel, without Ms. Robinson’s knowledge. The administrators ruled that her case didn’t qualify as sexual harassment, but they applied the conflict-of-interest policy and arranged for the dean to be her primary contact instead of Prof. Benson.

In an interview, Prof. Benson said their personal parting was amicable, denying all of Ms. Robinson’s allegations.He claimed she attempted to have a reading of her play Frontrunners (about the experiences of natives in residential schools) produced at the college, when her contract allowed her to give only three lectures. He described it as part of a pattern in his experience with Ms. Robinson, which began when they were dating.

“No other [visiting scholar] would expect $7,000 to produce a play,” Prof. Benson said.

Ms. Robinson said she raised money from outside foundations to present Frontrunners because the reading included flying native actors to UBC. (She said she understood the college would do the usual administrative tasks, such as promotion and photocopy posters. Ultimately, another department covered those costs.)

However, that is in dispute like most of the facts in the case. The parties don’t even agree on when Ms. Robinson was contracted for the fall term. She said a verbal offer was made after she spoke at another faculty in April 2004; Prof. Bensons said there was no contract until the letter of appointment was sent August 23.

This legal claim is another in a series of conflicts involving Green College members and Prof. Benson, an American academic who was hired as principal in fall 2004.

Last February, the first residents’ association in 13 years was formed to deal with ongoing disputes. In August, they publicly protested a new housing contract that permitted administration to enter their rooms without warning, and required them to have permission to drink alcohol. The contract was designed for the university’s undergraduate dorms, which house students who may be minors.

Brigitte Gemme, president of the residents’ association, said the university agreed to revise the contract, allowing residents 24 hours notice before administration goes into their rooms. But she said that doesn’t address the real problem: Rules are set and changed by the principal, without consultation, and there is no formal process for complaints and appeals.

Ms. Gemme said the contract still gives the principal too much discretionary power: “It doesn’t correspond to basic procedural justice and fairness.”

Residents were to sign by September 30, and trust that the administration will allow them a “substantial role” in reviewing the terms in January 2007. All but two signed the contract by Oct.5. In response, 59 of approximately 100 residents have signed form letters to the administration calling the contract “prima facie unreasonable” and reminding them of their promise to act fairly.

Prof. Benson attributes the conflicts to a few residents whom he describes as disrespectful and so abusive to college staff that equity complaints have been made against them.

He also describes the residents as very young, and paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year, because they couldn’t work.

“They don’t understand academic civility,” Prof. Benson said, calling their behaviour often inappropriate. “For example, at a welcoming dinner [for residents and alumni] they did the wave. And an emcee made jokes about [the housing contract] -- in front of the dean.”

Residents and alumni have sent roughly 40 letters urging the administration to protect the unique character of Green College. Many of them touch on the leadership problems and describe how a once dynamic community has become rife with intimidation, mistrust, and bullying.

Administration attributes some of the changes to Green College’s financial problems.

But alumni are asking why, if that’s the case, they haven’t been asked to help with fundraising and have been discouraged from participating in the college since Prof. Benson’s arrival.

Ann Rose, acting dean of graduate studies, said she is solving problems as they arise.

“It’s a work in progress,” Prof. Rose said. “I don’t know what all is written down [in the policies] at Green College, but from what I have heard there is an attitude of fairness and respect.”

Many residents still want a written charter to protect Green College and themselves.

Lisa Castle, associate vice president of human resources, said that the university prefers to deal with conflicts informally. “You don’t have to have a formal capital-P policy to deal with everything. The university takes issues of harassment seriously outside of its formal policies.”

According to Ms. Castle, Green College residents have plenty of recourse.

“They could go to the equity office, the president’s office… or even the board of governors. There is accountability all over the university.”

13 Oct 2006
BC-Page S3