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McMaster professors in harassment case demand transparency from tribunal

McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

Jason Jones/© 2005 Jason Jones Photography, Inc.

A McMaster University harassment case has evolved into a heated public dispute about the rights professors should enjoy when facing allegations and subjected to punishment.

One week after several professors were suspended for stymieing colleagues' careers and fuelling infighting at the DeGroote School of Business, the national group representing academic staff slammed the tribunal process and is now assisting those punished in their bid for total transparency.

"This is a really precedent-setting case," James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association for University Teachers (CAUT), said in an interview with The Globe and Mail Friday. "The implications are much beyond McMaster University."

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According to the school's anti-discrimination policy, all tribunal hearings are to be held behind closed doors unless a party asks otherwise and the tribunal then agrees. Given confidentiality orders, it's unclear whether anyone involved in the latest case requested an open hearing.

Instead of releasing the full 320-page decision, the tribunal released a 26-page summary that didn't include anyone's names or the details of specific incidents. The three-person body had investigated two linked harassment complaints that pitted those who supported the now-former business school dean against those who viewed him as an unqualified outsider.

As of Friday afternoon, CAUT started paying for lawyer Peter Jacobsen, who regularly represents The Globe, to work on behalf of several punished professors in their bid to bring all the tribunal's work into the public domain.

Lost in the debate around transparency are those who faced discrimination and harassment over several years, said James Heeney, counsel for the professors victimized by those suspended.

Six professors have been punished, several with multiyear suspensions. Under the school's policy, they can't make an internal appeal, but could try to launch a judicial review.

According to university spokeswoman Andrea Farquhar, the school initiated efforts Thursday evening to release the tribunal's full decision. In a written response Friday afternoon, Mr. Jacobsen said his clients would only agree if the tribunal also released the transcript of all roughly 220 hours of testimony and the documents submitted as evidence.

Mr. Heeney, who as of Friday is working pro bono for the victimized professors, said he fears those demands make it "impossible" to release the report since it could take months to transcribe the testimony and may well cost upwards of $80,000. When asked whether the university would support that kind of full disclosure, Ms. Farquhar said she believes the school would be "very comfortable" with the tribunal releasing all its material.

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