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gary mason

Since arriving at the University of B.C. this past summer, new president Santa Ono has been on something of a goodwill tour.

His intellect, affable demeanour and the easy, genuine rapport he has struck with students have been a perfect antidote to a tumultuous year of negative headlines that hurt the school's pristine brand and vaunted global reputation.

It has been the president's job to restore calm and confidence in the institution after his predecessor, Arvind Gupta, departed less than a year into the job. Dr. Gupta lost the faith of the university board, precipitating an ugly exit and one of the most fractious chapters in the school's 101-year history.

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But now Dr. Ono has his first real emergency to deal with, one that will test his reputation as an unflappable, pragmatic leader with an unerring instinct for doing the right thing.

UBC is being buried under a slide of damaging exposure connected to the firing of Steven Galloway as head of the creative writing department last June. This week, more than 80 high-profile members of Canada's literary community, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, signed a letter calling on the school to launch an independent investigation into the way the Galloway matter has been handled.

Their missive follows similar condemnation by others in the arts community who believe Mr. Galloway, a celebrated author himself, has been unfairly maligned, his good character left in tatters, as a result of an unjust and deeply flawed process. It is hard to disagree.

It is acknowledged that nothing is straight-forward or easy about this case.

While the university has never been specific about the nature of the allegations against Mr. Galloway, The Globe and Mail has reported they included sexual assault, harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour, including drinking with his students.

The university had former B.C. Supreme Court judge Mary Ellen Boyd look into the complaints; she substantiated only one, and it was not the most serious.

The school fired Mr. Galloway anyway, saying there had been an "irreparable breach of … trust." The university says it is bound by privacy laws that prevent it from detailing the allegations against Mr. Galloway unless he gives permission, which the school says he has not. But according to his supporters, Mr. Galloway has been denied the right to speak publicly by the university while he grieves his dismissal.

Regardless, there are many problems with the way in which the university handled the situation, beginning with its initial statement last November. It said in a release that the university had suspended Mr. Galloway because of "serious allegations" against him. The release appealed to any students worried about their "safety and well-being" to seek counselling, and offered that any conversations about their concerns would be treated confidentially.

In the absence of details, the mind was left to wander to all sorts of dark places.

There were other mistakes, egregious ones. For instance, confidential information was shared with people who arguably should not have had access to it. Mr. Galloway's name was viciously smeared largely based on rumour and innuendo. One of the biggest parlour games in Vancouver became: What horrible things were Steven Galloway alleged to have done to his students?

He was suddenly a pariah.

This is not to diminish in any way the accusations by those students who crossed paths with him. But that is not the focus of this column. A former judge has already rendered an opinion on many of those claims. The purpose here is to simply state that the chorus of writers and others jumping to Mr. Galloway's defence may have a point.

This man's reputation lies in ruins, and for what reason, precisely? It cannot be on the basis of what Ms. Boyd found in her report. She was unable to substantiate nearly every single complaint. So the public is left to imagine what this "irreparable breach of … trust" was.

Mr. Galloway's grievance of his dismissal will be heard by an independent arbitrator who will test the facts and allegations. But that is not going to happen until next March. Meantime, he continues to twist in a very harsh, unforgiving wind.

Based on what we know, it is fair to say UBC botched some key aspects of this affair. Maybe it felt at the time it was acting in the best interest of the students involved. But in the process it helped destroy someone's life.

Now UBC's reputation is under attack – again. And many across the country are watching to see how Dr. Ono handles his first big trial as president.