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Canada External probe found UBC professor violated policies on conflict, respectful environment

UBC

DARRYL DYCK/File

A psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has been temporarily barred from supervising students, researchers and volunteers by the province's College of Psychologists, was the subject of an investigation by the university last year.

Stephen Porter, who is the co-director of a psychology centre at the university's Okanagan campus, violated policies on conflict of interest and a respectful environment, a report from an external investigator hired by the university found.

Four complaints were received against Dr. Porter, according to documents provided to The Globe and Mail by two women among the four complainants. The two reports The Globe reviewed do not contain the names of the complainants, the professor or the witnesses, but accompanying correspondence about the investigation makes clear that the complaints were about Dr. Porter.

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One of the complainants The Globe spoke with alleged that over a period of three months in 2016, the professor sent sexually suggestive messages to her. The second complainant alleged that he touched her inappropriately after a party in 2016 where he was drunk. While the investigator did not find there was sexual misconduct or harassment, it concluded that Dr. Porter breached policies on conflict of interest and a respectful environment. The substance of the other two complaints is not known.

The investigation and its results have made the women question if the school was trying to minimize the impact of the investigation on Dr. Porter's career, they said.

To obtain the results of the investigation into their cases, the two women had to file freedom of information requests and they were told not to talk about the results of the inquiry, they said. They fear harm to their careers if their names were to become public, said the two students, who are currently enrolled at the university.

"All of this made it seem they were just protecting him," one complainant said. UBC should have made the results of the investigation public, they said.

"We did not feel heard by the university," another complainant said.

In a statement, the university said it cannot comment on specific cases, but that Dr. Porter "agreed to step aside from his teaching duties on January 12.

"UBC is working with the B.C. College of Psychologists to determine the best course of action with respect to the conditions and limitations placed on Dr. Porter's practice."

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On Friday, the college announced that Dr. Porter would be under regulatory supervision for 18 months with particular focus on boundary issues, power differentials, sexual harassment and doing no harm. Later that day, UBC announced that Dr. Porter would no longer be teaching.

The case comes as universities across North America are facing allegations that they ignore sexual harassment, assault and misconduct within their ranks. A crowd-sourced document of incidents of harassment and assault in academia that began collecting experiences in December now has almost 2,300 entries.

Last week, multiple former students in Concordia University's creative writing department alleged on social media and in blog posts that they faced sexual harassment and predatory behaviour over a number of years, allegations the university has said it is investigating. UBC fired author Steven Galloway as chair of the creative writing department in 2016 after an investigation found "a record of misconduct." The university's handling of that case has been heavily criticized by both the complainants and Mr. Galloway, who is appealing his termination.

The report into the first complaint against Dr. Porter details the events at a party he attended that was held for graduating students. He was the last professor in attendance at the party and was intoxicated, the investigator's report found.

His touching of one of the students after the party led to the first complaint. Because he was so drunk, he was not capable of "forming any intent, including a sexual intent," the report found in assessing the complaint.

In the second complaint, he sent text messages of an explicit nature to an undergraduate student he was supervising, over a three-month period.

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He did not step down as her supervisor, or help her find another professor with whom to work even though the report says the student asked for that assistance.

Dr. Porter did not want to face the embarrassment of disclosing the situation, the investigator's report states.

The power differential between the two meant that while "both [the professor and the student] participated fully in the conversations," Dr. Porter breached the university's conflict of interest policy. UBC's policy on conflict of interest includes situations where personal interest may lead someone to infringe on their obligation to protect the integrity of the university.

In a letter to Wisdom Tettey, the dean of arts and science at the Okanagan campus, the student said the investigator's report highlighted the need for the university to ban any sexual interactions by professors with students.

"I am disappointed that the university does not strictly prohibit such interactions and I am devastated by the consequences this interaction has had on me both personally and professionally," the student wrote. A copy of the letter was provided to The Globe and Mail.

UBC changed its policy on sexual assault and sexual misconduct this spring. Under the new policy, consent can never be given by someone who is in a relationship of "trust, power or authority," the new guidelines state.

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