Queen’s University is facing mounting pressure from athletes, alumni and the academic community to reinstate a varsity track coach who was fired for criticizing the University of Guelph and some of its former student athletes over their handling of sexual-abuse allegations.
After being told in a meeting on Tuesday morning that coach Steve Boyd would not be reinstated, some Queen’s track athletes said they may quit the program or transfer to other schools to protest against his firing last Wednesday. Provost Tom Harris said he ordered Mr. Boyd fired.
An e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail also indicates that a prominent donor plans to stop funding the school’s only full track scholarship in response to the firing. The donor has demanded Mr. Boyd be reinstated, and that a third-party review be allowed.
Mr. Harris told The Globe he stands by his decision to fire Mr. Boyd, and that Queen’s remains committed to track and cross-country. “We hope our current student athletes will remain a part of our program,” he said. “Should they choose to leave, we will respect their decision and assist them in any way possible.”
The Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship had harsh words for Queen’s. The latter stated in an open letter that universities have a responsibility to uphold freedom of expression, and that Mr. Boyd should be reinstated. “Making an example of Mr. Boyd will tend to shut down discussion” of important topics the coach was attempting to address, said Mark Mercer, the society’s president.
The university dismissed Mr. Boyd after he made critical remarks about the University of Guelph’s handling of the Dave Scott-Thomas case, and engaged in an online argument with Guelph alumni.
A Globe investigation revealed allegations that Mr. Scott-Thomas, a star track coach at Guelph, had a sexual relationship with a young athlete and developed a toxic, win-at-all-costs culture at the school. The university fired him in December. Mr. Scott-Thomas, through his lawyer, has denied these accusations.
The case touched off a debate in the running world about the power of coaches, the safety of women in sport, and the problems of single-minded focus on winning in top university programs.
Many Guelph alumni have said they feel victimized by criticism against them for not speaking up about their coach’s actions. Mr. Boyd’s comments focused on athletes and former coaches who trained with Mr. Scott-Thomas and benefited from his success.
Mr. Harris said in a statement after Mr. Boyd’s dismissal that the coach’s comments “follow a pattern of objectionable social media commentary spanning several years, about which he had previously been formally cautioned.” Mr. Boyd contends he had not been warned before, and when the school alerted him about its recent displeasure with his opinions, he stopped making public statements immediately. In response, Mr. Harris told The Globe on Tuesday that, “ceasing to make comments does not excuse the actions he had already taken, and we were compelled to act.”
The Queen’s track team and a lawyer helping them met with Mr. Harris, a member of his staff and a university lawyer on Tuesday hoping to persuade the administration to reverse its decision.
Mr. Harris told The Globe that Mr. Boyd was fired for comments on a Facebook post that “bullied, belittled and berated" former Guelph athletes. Olympians, including marathoner Reid Coolsaet, argued with Mr. Boyd in a heated exchange that has been reviewed by The Globe. Mr. Coolsaet has said he did not complain to Queen’s, and he and others involved in the argument did not feel he should have been fired.
Sean Ellacott, the lawyer helping the student-athletes, said they were making a stand because Mr. Boyd is being treated unfairly. “They feel that Queen’s fired a coach who cultivated an inclusive, safe and supportive environment and still achieved superb results,” he said.
“This is a real issue of concern to anyone who cares about freedom of expression. The context is of Mr. Boyd speaking out about ways to bring about institutional change to guard against sexual violence and emotional abuse by coaches.”
Queen’s student athletes say they received little clarity in the meeting. They said the school has agreed to a second meeting, but its purpose is unclear.
“I believe the decision to fire [Mr. Boyd] was completely based on the university being concerned about its image and reputation, yet we are the ones who have to face the outcome of this,” team co-captain Marley Beckett said, adding that the 28 students favour Mr. Boyd’s reinstatement.
Ms. Beckett said she moved from Vancouver to train with Mr. Boyd because of his reputation as a strong, compassionate coach and leader in women’s equity in sport. The third-year electrical engineering student, who is on an academic scholarship, said she has asked to be released from the program so she can consider other schools. “The reason why I came here was to run with this coach and this team,” she said.
Last weekend, a group of Queen’s athletes travelled to York University in Toronto for the Ontario University Association indoor track championships. Some of the students said they asked Mr. Boyd to attend as a spectator for moral support. The school’s assistant coaches, Leslie Sexton and Steve Weiler, said the Queen’s athletics department asked them to take Mr. Boyd’s role for the weekend, but they opted to accompany the former coach in the stands.
Mr. Boyd said that within minutes of entering the facility, he was told to leave by Jennifer Myers, York’s athletics executive director. After security guards threatened to call the police, Mr. Boyd said he left. He added that he wasn’t given a clear reason.
York University spokesperson Yanni Dagonas said in a statement that “a concern was raised with regard to an individual spectating the competition,” but declined to provide further details. Mr. Boyd said he was allowed to attend the next day.