Buckets of Data

July 7, 1997

Hamilton Spectator, 7 July 1997, ‘Sex scandal that won’t swim away’

Filed under: Marsden,Uncategorized — bucketsdata @ 3:35 am

Sex scandal that won’t swim away: The story of how the popular swimming instructor sexually harassed a beautiful student he once coached rippled across the campus and beyond. Since then, the authorities at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have been struggling to deal with the fallout.Marina JimenezVancouver Sun7 July 1997The Hamilton SpectatorB5ancouver — In the middle of it all, the university, whose broad stairways and outdoor amphitheatre were meant to encourage the free flow of ideas, struggled to deal with the crisis and turn the tide of public opinion in its favour. Now, weeks after the story first broke, editorial pages and talk shows are still filled with stinging criticism of how the president is handling the case. An arbitration hearing this summer will review it, but lawyers could negotiate an earlier settlement to the crisis.It wasn’t supposed to be this way for an institution that was once a model of social change and innovation.In 1965, when renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson designed SFU atop Burnaby mountain, the concrete giant symbolized a new approach to education. It attracted progressive students and professors who gathered together to experience the liberation of academia.By most accounts, the experiment worked. SFU evolved into a prestigious place with active alumni and a growing student body. Last year Maclean’s annual survey rated it the best university in Canada, and the year before, second-best.But then, in late May, the bomb dropped: the Donnelly-Marsden sexual harassment case went public.SFU president John Stubbs and other administrators are trying to play down its significance, saying in another 30 years the university will still be standing, the incident barely a footnote in the annals of history.”I predict that neither in the long term nor the short term will this have an impact on our ability to attract either students or staff,” said acting president David Gagan, who notes that so far SFU has lost only $1,500 in donations from disgruntled supporters. After all, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria weathered crises in their political science departments a few years back.But experts say these kinds of cases can shake a university’s foundations and create a sense of unease and divisiveness that resonates in the community at large. While it’s difficult to measure the impact on enrolment and funding, public relations consultants say the incident will affect the university’s reputation and prestige. They advise institutions that the best way to minimize controversy is to be as open as possible, promptly admit errors and focus attention on solutions.”The longer this drags on, the more harm it will do to the university’s reputation,” said Jim Peacock, president of a Vancouver public relations firm.”It won’t go away until the public sees a reasonable, public resolution.”SFU has to reassure students they’re still protected from harassment, professors they’re not under attack and the public that the forces of so-called political correctness have not run amok.Media consultant Laura Peck says the best way to restore credibility is with what she calls a “front-page approach.””Open the front door to the media or else they’ll sneak in through the side door,” says Peck, whose Ottawa agency counts Canadian and American universities among its clients.She says research on large-scale disasters such as the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and drug company fiascos shows that the best way to restore credibility is “to say, ‘I care,’ early and often … to have an executive or faculty administrator say, ‘I’m sorry.’ “But often this simple medicine is hard to swallow, especially at large bureaucracies, where admitting errors can be countercultural. Universities thrive on slow, committee-style decision-making and complex policies — not quick solutions. Sexual harassment is also a relatively new area of concern, so there are few precedents for dealing with these cases.That may explain why SFU has had a hard time winning this particular public relations battle.From the start, it seems everyone has had an opinion on how the university should have handled the complaint against Donnelly — from parents and coaches to professors and students. The interest has even extended to American tabloid television shows and local movie companies, which are now considering docudramas based on the case.- – -“It was destined to become a blood bath,” Pam Miller says wryly, sitting in the cluttered basement office of the campus newspaper, The Peak, where she is an editor. “It had all the key words: harassment, swim coach, political correctness and sex.”Miller, a 24-year-old sociology major, believes much of the attention has been destructive, and she worries people will get “the wrong idea” about the university. “Students are concerned enrolment may go down because people fear SFU is run by politically correct freaks. But it’s not about political correctness, it’s about a fair process.”There may be closure on the Donnelly-Marsden case sooner than predicted. An arbitration board is scheduled Aug. 2 to review Stubbs’ decision to dismiss the swim coach. But Donnelly’s lawyer Loryl Russell said last week she is negotiating with the university to see if they can’t settle the matter sooner.In the meantime, SFU isn’t exactly following the experts’ advice.Instead of apologizing, Stubbs has defended the firing and said he was right to ignore Donnelly’s evidence that Marsden harassed him, because the information came too late.SFU criminologist Neil Boyd says the president’s reluctance to admit a mistake has given the university a black eye. “Here’s a person who won’t use common sense to make a decision … It makes us look like the pointy-headed academics so often made fun of in cartoons.”Peacock concurs: “There is the impression that the university administration is trying to duck a crisis by hiding behind a process rather than addressing the issues directly.”The university also decided not to suspend the controversial harassment policy until the Donnelly-Marsden case is resolved. Instead, the president released a revision of the old policy that addressed some of the problems.”We’ve made an extra-special effort to get the revision in people’s hands so they’ll have something concrete to talk about,” says Gagan.Unfortunately, the university hasn’t been as up-front about other aspects of the case. SFU has steadfastly refused to name the three panel members who found Donnelly guilty. University officials were deciding whether they could release their report, under provincial privacy legislation.SFU officials also denied Marsden received a cash settlement, then struggled to come up with an explanation, days later, after news of her $12,000 settlement was leaked to the media.Russell says the university is looking for other methods of ending public discussion of the case. “They are looking for ways to resolve the problem that would involve more confidential proceedings,” she says.Not exactly the candid approach experts recommend.If the public is still searching for answers, so are many people inside the university. Student society president Joey Hansen says he’s worried students will now be reluctant to complain to the campus harassment office, given the public controversy that followed Marsden’s complaint. “Students are already intimidated by the process,” he says.On the other side of the academic fence, Boyd says many professors fear unfounded complaints. “It’s our job to provoke students, get them to think about offensive ideas. Some faculty are concerned about freedom of expression, some fear they’ll be targeted.”Over at UBC, the political science department is still recovering from the chaos and controversy of two years ago, when a handful of graduate students accused professors of racism and sexism.Labour lawyer Joan McEwan conducted an investigation into the department that confirmed students’ complaints. UBC president David Strangway accepted the report and the recommendation to suspend graduate admissions temporarily.Then the report itself came under widespread attack; professors and civil-rights groups angrily accused McEwan of not following the principles of natural justice.Today, the wounds still fester. The head of the political science department refused to talk to a reporter, as did McEwan.The head of the equity office bristled at a reporter’s questions, calling them “unhelpful.” (She later answered questions that were faxed to her.)Others said all has not been forgotten and forgiven — either among faculty or among aggrieved graduate students. “There is a lingering sense of having been shabbily dealt with by the administration,” notes political science professor Philip Resnick.John Grace, dean of graduate studies at the time, says the episode destroyed professional relationships. Some graduate students are still upset and avoid the department.”The atmosphere became so poisoned between certain students and certain professors that the problems will only be solved as those people retire or graduate,” says Grace, who noted some prospective graduate students decided not to come to UBC after all.Vice-provost Libby Nason said the episode certainly didn’t help the university, though she doesn’t think there was a drop in enrolment.”Everyone blamed the McEwan report and the president for taking action. But there were two very divided camps. Opinion might have gone the other way if the president hadn’t taken action.”Yet, she notes, there has been positive change as well. The university’s harassment policy has been revised to address many of the concerns. The concept of systemic discrimination is now defined in the policy, and there are now clear guidelines about how to conduct investigations into complaints of discrimination and harassment.As well, there are more female professors in the political science department, including one who teaches courses on gender and politics.The University of Victoria suffered a similar scandal in its political science department in 1993, when a professor concluded the department was “chilly” towards women.The professor went on to file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Commission that is still unresolved. And the university ended up adding “chilly climate” to its harassment policy and introduced a way to deal with these kinds of complaints.Back at SFU,the new harassment policy won’t be in place for at least a few more months, and may undergo several more revisions before then.


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