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Education Memorial University hires outside investigator to tackle harassment, bullying concerns

The campus of Memorial University in St. John’s.

Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

Concerns related to sexual harassment, bullying, harassment and intimidation have prompted officials at Memorial University's faculty of medicine to hire an outside investigator.

"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," Margaret Steele, the dean of medicine at the St. John's university, said in a memo distributed to faculty and students on Thursday. The concerns, she said, "may be of a sexual nature and may constitute sexual harassment" and thus prompted her to take them to the university's sexual harassment adviser, Rhonda Shortall.

A decision to engage an outside assessor was approved by the university's president. The assessor will be named shortly.

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"I am committed to a learning environment free of bullying, intimidation, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault," Dr. Steele said in the memo.

The allegations at Memorial are coming to light as people are increasingly stepping forward to report incidents of sexual harassment, particularly in the fields of entertainment and politics, and urging others to do likewise.

David Sorensen, a spokesman for the university, said Dr. Steele learned of the allegations earlier this month and immediately moved them forward. He said the school is not prepared to disclose whether they were generated by students, faculty or some combination. "We will not be making any comment about the nature of the complaint or complainants until the review is completed so as not to prejudice the work over the investigator," he said in an e-mail.

Renata Lang, executive director of external affairs for the MUN Students' Union said that at least two medical students have raised concerns about harassment and intimidation by faculty members to student representatives recently. One of the students Ms. Lang spoke with personally said problems are widespread, she said.

Mr. Sorensen said Dr. Steele is not giving interviews on the matter. He said the school hopes to announce the name of the investigator and the terms of reference "as soon as possible" and ideally within a two-week time frame. The process will be an independent review of the faculty of medicine and result in a set of recommendations that relate to the medical school's sexual-harassment policies, culture and learning environment.

A spokeswoman for MUN's Medical Students' Society referred requests for comment to Mr. Sorensen.

The Professional Association of Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador did not return a request for comment.

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This is not the first time that concerns over the learning environment – and specifically, harassment – at MUN's medical school have been raised. Earlier this year CBC reported that concerns over harassment and intimidation between faculty members and residents inside the school's internal medicine program had been flagged by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

The Royal College, which awards accreditation for specialty medical programs in Canada, served MUN with a notice of intent to withdraw accreditation from the school's internal medicine program, CBC reported. The notice was served to MUN last April after the Royal College completed a review the fall prior.

A spokesperson for the Royal College, Melissa Nisbett, told The Globe it is not the college's practice to publicly share details around a university's accreditation and could not confirm the CBC report. In response to the CBC story, which ran last spring, Dr. Steele told the network she had asked psychiatry doctor Tanis Adey, an expert in professionalism, to lead a group reviewing the school's policies and practices.

Mr. Sorensen said the current investigation is not related to Dr. Adney's investigation or the Royal College review.

Officials at Halifax's Dalhousie University made a similar move to recruit outside help in 2014 after allegations of misogyny and sexual harassment related to a private Facebook group were raised by students in the school's dental program.

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