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Third-party review finds ‘toxic’ culture at University of Prince Edward Island

Click to play video: 'Global News Morning New Brunswick: June 15'
Global News Morning New Brunswick: June 15
The online edition of Global News Morning with Paul Brothers and Eilish Bonang on Global New Brunswick – Jun 15, 2023

A review of allegations of workplace misconduct at the University of Prince Edward Island says the school had a toxic environment where bullying and harassment were widespread and condoned at the top.

The university mandated Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson in December 2021 to conduct the review, following misconduct allegations against its former president, Alaa Abd-El-Aziz. Investigators with the law firm said the president faced current allegations and two complaints from 2013 that he had allegedly made inappropriate comments to people who were bound by non-disclosure agreements.

In a 112-page partially redacted report dated June 6, the law firm said that due to “obstacles,” including the non-disclosure agreements, it “cannot, at this time, provide the university with a clear picture of the former president’s behaviour or its response to it.”

The law firm, however, was able to conclude that the university “has failed to create a safe, respectful, and positive environment for working and learning for all members of its community.”

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A “concerning” number of people within the university had experienced behaviour that was at odds with the fair treatment and sexual violence policies, it said in its review. “It is a toxic work environment, where distrust is fostered and where managers point out the shortcomings of staff to their peers,” it said, quoting a staff member.

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University staff reported a culture of fear and intimidation.

“We heard of instances of screaming and yelling among staff, faculty, and students, belittling or overly critical managers and faculty, gossiping and backstabbing, favouritism, the targeting of students by faculty for mistreatment, and the use of intimidation tactics,” it said.

One partially redacted comment from a staff member reads: “‘UPEI is the most miserable, soul sucking place of work I have ever experienced. Managers talk about other employees behind their backs to other staff members, harassment and bullying is acceptable.”

The report said that given the relatively few women of colour on campus, it couldn’t provide anonymized examples of their comments because doing so could identify them.

“Suffice it to say, they described a state of affairs in which they were profoundly disrespected, “othered,” and subjected to unwelcome conduct.”

Abd-El-Aziz was appointed in July 2011 and his term was renewed in 2015 and 2018. He resigned in December 2021 after 10 years in the role, citing health issues.

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A news release from the university said the review was conducted early to mid-2022 through surveys and interviews.

The report concludes that the problems described are dire and that the university will need a comprehensive plan to address the many issues that require remediation. It urges those in charge to acknowledge the serious problem at the university and set out a plan to fix them. It lists a series of recommendations, including fostering a culture of listening and restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements.

University board of governors’ chair Pat Sinnott and president Greg Keefe said in a news release they welcome the thoughtful recommendations.

“We deeply regret that, as an institution, we have not always lived up to our values, particularly in the time period covered by the review,” they said.

“We must do better, and we will. We will continue to work hard to create a safe, respectful, and positive environment for all members of the (university) community.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2023.

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