A tribunal at McMaster University was too harsh with professors at the university's DeGroote School of Business when it handed down suspensions as long as three years as a result of a harassment investigation, an Ontario appeal court has ruled.
The court reduced the length of the suspensions and ordered McMaster to compensate the faculty members.
The case stems from a long-running dispute in which critics and supporters of former businessman Paul Bates faced off over whether he was an appropriate dean for DeGroote. After the debate turned personal, many of those involved filed claims and counterclaims of harassment with the university's human rights office. In 2013, a university tribunal that heard the complaints ruled that three professors – critics of Mr. Bates – be suspended without pay for three years. Two other faculty members faced shorter suspensions, and one was reprimanded. The professors applied for judicial review of the decision at Ontario's Superior Court of Justice.
"What the courts are saying is that tribunals will be held to certain standards," said David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which supported the review. Tribunals "constituted within a university context ... have to make sure that if there is guilt found, that the penalties are commensurate with the crime," he said.
Faculty members who were suspended for three years took early retirement, prematurely ending their research and teaching, Dr. Robinson added.
The case began 12 years ago, when Mr. Bates, a former CEO of brokerage Charles Schwab, was appointed dean of DeGroote. Some faculty at the school believed Mr. Bates's lack of a university degree should have disqualified him from consideration and attempted to have him removed. In 2010, after a report found the environment at the school during the fight over Mr. Bates' deanship had deteriorated into bullying, Mr. Bates resigned. Even so, hearings into what had occurred proceeded and a university tribunal handed down the penalties. Mr. Bates's critics, the tribunal said at the time, were "seemingly unconcerned about whether [the campaign against Mr. Bates was] real, embellished, or even false."
While upholding the right of McMaster's tribunal to take action to address DeGroote's atmospheric issues , the Superior Court ruling found the punishment excessive. Up until the fight over Mr. Bates, the professors had clean employment records throughout three decades, as well as long service.
Such long suspensions appear unprecedented, the court wrote, citing previous cases, including those of professors who had defrauded provincial loan programs, had sexual relations with students, and engaged in gender discrimination – all received milder penalties.
"There would not appear to be any support in … the employment law context generally for a suspension without pay or benefits for a duration of three years. … The employee is unable to support himself and family, yet is unemployable and is stigmatized in professional circles," the ruling said. As a result, the court reduced the three-year suspension to one year and the one-year suspension to one academic term. As the court directed, McMaster has said it is establishing a process to determine fair compensation for the professors.