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Review of McMaster psych department uncovers culture that let ‘inappropriate behaviours’ slide

The review of McMaster's psychology, neuroscience and behaviour department was spurred by sexual assault charges against an associate professor. Lisa Polewski / Global News

A systemic review of McMaster University’s department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour (PNB) has uncovered a culture that “created a degree of complacency that has let inappropriate behaviours go unchecked.”

The review by law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP was launched by the university after Hamilton police arrested an associate professor on sexual assault charges in June.

Scott Watter, 46, of Hamilton is charged with sexual assault and sexual assault causing bodily harm in connection with allegations involving an adult female student in 2017.

On Thursday, McMaster released a statement about the review’s completion and responded to its findings.

“The reviewer’s findings identify a number of issues that need to be addressed right away,” David Farrar, McMaster president, said in a statement.

“The reviewer also recommends a series of actions to ensure that all students, faculty and staff in PNB have a clear understanding of the need for change and can benefit from a new approach. I appreciate everyone who participated in the review and took the time to share their thoughts, perspectives and experiences.”

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Read more: 2 more McMaster staff members accused in sexual violence investigation, says president

A total of 262 people in PNB — including faculty, staff, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and some PNB undergraduates and alumni — were invited to take part in the review.

It ultimately heard from 114 people who responded to a survey, and 35 who participated in one-on-one interviews.

Many described the department’s environment in a positive manner, using words like “friendly,” “social,” welcoming” and “like a family” — but others were more critical, saying the social nature of the department led to “a lack of boundaries” between faculty and students, as well as there being a lack of accountability that led to “letting things slide.”

Others described certain PNB faculty members as having a “boys’ club mentality,” with a culture that was described as “toxic,” “elitist,” “cliquey” and “gossipy.”

Alcohol flowed freely at social events held by the department, which some participants suggested “blurs the professional lines between faculty and students.”

The lack of boundaries between faculty and students was a “red flag” for some, and others said the nature of the department — with a focus on psychology — led to more personal conversations.

Read more: McMaster graduate student banned from campus amid misconduct probe

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More than 25 participants described behaviour that the reviewers said could be characterized as sexual harassment, including “male faculty making sexual advances or engaging in unwanted sexual attention towards female students,” “sexually inappropriate comments by faculty,” “inappropriate sexual behaviour between students” and “sexual relationships between faculty and students.”

There were some participants who said they’d tried to have their concerns addressed, but said they felt “continually dismissed” by the department, as well as McMaster’s Equity and Inclusion Office.

The review also found cases of non-sexual harassment, like faculty being rude or condescending to students or having unreasonable timelines or unclear expectations, which some participants chalked up to the power imbalance between students and faculty.

While some participants objected to the review taking place at all, attributing certain behaviours to “outliers” in the department, others said PNB has had a history of ignoring problems or transgressions by its members.

The review outlined five recommendations for McMaster and the PNB department:

  • Training on navigating healthy boundaries between faculty and students, as well as mandatory training on sexual harassment for faculty, staff and incoming grad students.
  • Limits and restrictions with respect to alcohol consumption at social events.
  • Ensuring someone in the department has equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) expertise.
  • Increased oversight and accountability.
  • Transparency from McMaster and the department about the review’s findings and the university’s plans to address concerns raised within.

Read more: 2 more McMaster staff members sanctioned in sexual violence investigation

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Maureen MacDonald, dean of science at McMaster, responded to the review in a statement on the university’s website.

“I would like to thank everyone who participated in the review and were candid about their experiences both positive and negative,” wrote MacDonald. “This is not an easy process for anyone involved but the review provides a fresh starting point and I hope that everyone embraces that opportunity.”

She also said the faculty of science is responding to the recommendations with the following steps:

  • Training for faculty and staff with a trauma-informed approach for early 2021.
  • Training for students on sexual harassment and the resources and supports available.
  • Recommending limits and restrictions on alcohol consumption at department social events and gatherings.
  • Additional equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) expertise from outside the department.
  • Increased department oversight and accountability, particularly with regard to EDI-related issues.
  • A renewed commitment to transparency with participants of the review, as well as a commitment to helping the department build on its research and teaching strengths.

Although the review is complete, the university said investigations into specific allegations under its sexual violence and discrimination and harassment policies are ongoing.

Following Watter’s arrest in June, McMaster conducted its own internal probe that led to allegations against two more PNB staff members, who were suspended in July.

A PNB graduate student was suspended a week later, and in October, two more PNB staff members were sanctioned after more allegations came to light.

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