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British Columbia UBC to probe its response to sexual-harassment, assault complaints

People sit outside the bookstore at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., on Sept. 2.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The University of British Columbia has appointed an independent investigator to look at how it responded to complaints of sexual harassment and assault from a number of female students against a graduate student at the school.

UBC had decided to review how it handled the case before the women's complaints became the subject of a CBC documentary, the university said.

"We had recognized that this had been an incredibly complex case. We wanted to have someone independent come in and look at the policy and process, and ensure that it served us in the best way possible," said Sara-Jane Finlay, the associate vice-president of equity and inclusion.

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Paula Butler, a Vancouver-based labour lawyer who specializes in workplace harassment and discrimination, will report back on how the university treated several women who brought complaints to the equity office. A summary of her report will be publicly released, but the details of Ms. Butler's investigation will not be made public to protect the women, UBC said.

The student identified by the women was eventually expelled, but the process took a year and a half. Glynnis Kirchmeier, one of the students involved in the case, plans to file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

UBC's interim president Martha Piper has apologized for how long it took to take action and the university is now developing a standalone sexual assault policy.

"The commitment to develop a standalone sexual assault policy is something we were talking about and considering in advance of the media coverage. What that did was catalyze a commitment to develop that policy," Ms. Finlay said.

An annual report released this fall by the equity office showed that only a very small number of inquiries led to formal investigations. Ms. Finlay said trying to help people who come to the office informally without entering into a "combative" process is the right approach.

"Often when someone is not inclined to make a complaint, which enters them into due process, they want to work on a more informal basis. Doing work on an informal basis creates a much healthier environment here," she said. "We're very proud of the fact that we're able to manage things and create a healthier environment for our faculty, staff and students."

An unrelated investigation into unspecified allegations made against author Steven Galloway, who was suspended as chair of the creative writing program, is also ongoing at the university.

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