After the release of a damning report on Prince Edward Island’s only university, Premier Dennis King says he wouldn’t want his children attending the school.
King said he was “sickened” to read the report by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson, which details a toxic culture of harassment and racism at University of Prince Edward Island and says the school failed to address allegations of sexual and gender-based violence.
“If my son asked me today, `Would UPEI be somewhere I should be considering?’ It would be hard for me to recommend that,” the premier said in the legislature Thursday. “I take that very seriously.”
The 112-page, partially redacted report says a “concerning” number of people had experienced scenarios that went against the university’s fair treatment and sexual violence policies.
The report documents cases of misogynistic comments from graduate students and supervisors, as well as “lewd comments and suggestions” from certain professors directed at students and co-workers. The behaviour “carried on for years without being addressed in any meaningful way, despite multiple complaints,” the report says.
“A male professor touched my breasts in passing in the coffee area, but it was not an accident,” one woman told the review. “The same professor pushed up against me at the photocopier, and he clearly had an erection.”
One respondent said they were sexually harassed by two different professors and received “unwanted comments and attention,” while another described campus residences as “unsafe environments where sexual violence is common.”
King said the review should be read by all Islanders. The government, he added, was reconsidering the $50 million in operating funding it allocates every year to the university in light of the report, which was released earlier this week.
“Any institution we’re funding should have standards they need to meet,” he said. “If they can’t meet it, they shouldn’t get access to taxpayer money.”
Jillian Kilfoil, executive director of Women’s Network PEI, said conditions at the university haven’t been a secret.
“I think we were all prepared the report would be significant,” she said, but reading it was nonetheless “shocking and horrific.”
She said she was most taken aback by the “repeated inaction” from the university’s leadership. She noted the report didn’t include certain testimony from women of colour, who could be identifiable because there are so few of them on campus.
“I think there’s still more experiences and more harm that occurred that we’re still not hearing about,” she said.
The university mandated the law firm to investigate following allegations of workplace misconduct against former president Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, who resigned in December 2021. The law firm, however, says in the report it was “unable to obtain a clear picture of the president’s behaviour or the school’s response to it.”
The report says the university should “publicly acknowledge there is a serious problem and undertake to fix it” by implementing annual audits, strengthening the university’s leadership and emphasizing leadership training, among other recommendations.
“During this review, we were struck by how often participants told us that those in authority, such as managers, administrators and senior leaders, had not only failed to cultivate an environment of respect and inclusion, but had themselves, contributed to, or were aware of, toxic and problematic behaviour,” the report says.
“We see this as a failure of leadership, and again, inconsistent with the university’s stated values.”
A letter from the UPEI Faculty Association called the review “devastating.” The union says the report describes “an ongoing culture of bullying, harassment, and of racism and misogyny, as well as widespread fear of reprisal.”
The letter, addressed to board of governors chair Pat Sinnott and university interim president Greg Keefe, says the institution’s leaders have minimized “the deeply troubling nature” of the report. It calls on the university to “act immediately, openly and collaboratively” in building an action plan “to once and for all change the climate of fear, secrecy and retaliation.”
In a statement on June 14, the university said an action plan would be developed based on the report. The statement from Keefe and Sinnott also said the university would install a “vice-president of people and culture,” who would oversee human resources, diversity efforts, sexual violence prevention and response services, and report to the university’s president.
UPEI has about 5,500 students and 853 full-time employees.
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