SFU Update: Vigilance Still Needed

April 1998

Simon Fraser University (SFU) has a new president, new legal advisors, a new harassment office director and a new harassment policy, all growing out of the abuse of power scandal reflected in the case involving the mishandling of the complaint of a female student (Rachel Marsden) against a swim coach (Liam Donnelly). Donnelly has been reinstated, with SFU agreeing that both evidence and procedures were severely flawed.

Further, the policy contained a number of apparent improvements such as the provision that major penalties such as suspension or dismissal could be imposed only on a finding of clear and convincing evidence of misconduct; if nothing else, this should be useful in appeals. The new policy endorses academic freedom in fairly broad and glowing terms, and attempts to stay out of personal relationships. For the first time, there are possible penalties for false or frivolous complaints. So far it is all to the good.

But serious problems remain. I will describe just a few of them here. (1) The procedures for formulating the new policy were altered in such a way as to defeat any efforts at broader reform. This was done by forming a task force that essentially had zero faculty representation (there were two administrators and an undergraduate student who had endorsed the persecution of Donnelly). (2) The policy and procedures still place a heavy emphasis on secrecy, which, of course, poses obvious dangers, and shows a failure to correct a pervasive weakness that led to the previous problems. (3) The emphasis on academic freedom is offset by an all-out unqualified endorsement of the NDP's Human Rights Act with its notable assault on free speech; there are a number of obvious dangers here. (4) There are still vague definitions of what constitutes harassment. (5) There are still procedural provisions that are slanted in favour of accusers. (6) There is still an aura of political correctness in the policy document. (7) It is going to be much too easy to convict persons on minor offenses, where vague rules and low standards of proof create a dangerous combination. (8) The new policy still provides for the payment of bounties, with the danger of purchased testimony.

One final problem is that there has been no systematic reporting on the previous abuses. While endorsing enforced apologies as one form of punishment for harassment, the administration has never apologized to anyone (including Donnelly) for the gross abuse of rights of accused persons that prevailed throughout the system. Many important actions involving abuses are being meticulously covered by broad interpretations of privacy laws. A promise to explain (made by then President Stubbs) has been conveniently forgotten. The struggle continues.