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A third-party assessor has found “a culture of tolerance of disrespectful and harassing behaviour” in some parts of the school of medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, according to her report on allegations of bullying and intimidation inside the faculty.

Sandra LeFort, a professor emerita at Memorial’s School of Nursing in St. John’s who has served in many administrative posts, was tapped to conduct an assessment last January after Margaret Steele, the dean of medicine, went public with the revelation that harassment concerns had surfaced.

“It has come to my attention that there have been several concerns raised about the Faculty of Medicine’s learning environment that are extremely troubling to me,” Dr. Steele said in a memo distributed to faculty and students. The concerns, she said then, “may be of a sexual nature and may constitute sexual harassment.”

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Dr. LeFort was not asked to investigate the merits of particular claims because of the university’s existing policies and processes for complaints. Her mandate involved assessing the medical school’s culture and learning environment. She was asked to make recommendations for changes based on her findings.

Dr. LeFort interviewed more than 50 students, faculty members and experts before tabling her report and its 39 recommendations. In it are accounts from eight undergraduate students who said they had been either the target of or had witnessed sexual harassment or other bullying and intimidating behaviours.

Those included “females being told that they should not go into some surgical specialties if they want to have a family.” Other examples were “male faculty rapidly questioning and interrupting female students […] but treating male students with greater respect; female clinical clerks being told to get the coffee for everyone.” One female student who said she might be interested in a surgical career was told “it is too stressful – she looked more like a family doctor – and besides that she might be a ‘distraction’ in the operating room,” the report reads.

Postgraduate students, known as residents, told Dr. LeFort they did not feel “’safe” reporting intimidation or harassment through established channels in part because of the small medical community in Newfoundland and Labrador and the potential impact on job prospects. “Residents reported concerns about confidentiality, fear of immediate or future retaliation and being labelled as a ‘complainer’,” the report says.

Still, the residents reported being ridiculed in front of colleagues, being yelled at, “picked on” and being “sworn at over the phone.” Some endured “being the object of personal comments about race or body size.” Being singled out because of race and gender was a common theme reported to Dr. LeFort.

The students also told her about intimidation that resulted from what they called a “hidden curriculum,” or lessons they were taught indirectly by faculty members. Those included learning that “women can’t be surgeons,” that long work hours are valued and that “family medicine is not as respectable as other residency programs and is on the lowest end of the power hierarchy,” the report says.

Some of those who spoke to Dr. LeFort said that when complaints were reported to faculty administrators in the past, little appeared to be done about it.

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Students, Dr. LeFort found, are not the only ones who feel this way. Her assessment included interviews with faculty members. One specialist physicians detailed “systematic, prolonged, planned harassment over a four-year period,” while another outlined problems with unequal work loads, pay equity and “issues of harassment, intimidation and gender bias towards mid-career and older female physicians.”

Administrative staff at the medical school, too, told Dr. LeFort they had been victimized. One female staffer reported being asked to give hugs and being leered at. Others reported being yelled at or publicly humiliated during work sessions.

Dr. LeFort did note that many interviewees expressed positivity about the medical school’s overall culture and said that abusive behaviour was limited to a small group of individuals. She also noted, though, that the school has much work to do to improve its environment.

“The perception is that the faculty of medicine has a culture of conflict avoidance and by failing to address issues, reinforces abusive behaviours,” she wrote.

The report’s recommendations include increasing the complement of staff at the university’s sexual harassment office and establishing an Equity Officer. Dr. LeFort said that her research found that most other medical schools in Canada have a similar position, one that provides independent, confidential advice and support to faculty, staff, students and administrators.

The 85-page document was made public on Monday by the dean, Dr. Steele, who said in an interview that her office is already laying the groundwork for change.

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“I’m committed to having a working and learning environment that is free of bullying, intimidation, harassment and sexual harassment. This is a high priority for us,” she said, adding: “As with anything, it will be a process. Culture change takes time.”

Dr. Steele said a plan of action is in development; her office plans to share regular updates on the status of recommendations and their implementation.

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