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Canada Ryerson investigated office environment before Brock president's appointment

Wendy Cukier was supposed to start as president of Brock University on Sept. 1.

(Nation Wong / Aegis Design)

The slow-trickling scandal that is enveloping Brock University shows that universities must become more transparent in how they deal with the hiring and firing of university presidents, an expert on university governance says.

The St. Catharines, Ont., university has faced questions this week about why it parted ways with Wendy Cukier, a senior administrator at Ryerson University who was supposed to begin as Brock's new president Thursday. Three days before that start date, Brock announced that by mutual agreement, the appointment would not proceed.

No reasons were given for the decision.

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John Suk, the chair of Brock's board of trustees, said the school did not know that Ryerson had done an investigation into Dr. Cukier's behaviour in the workplace in the last year.

Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that Ryerson conducted a 2015 inquiry into the office environment in the department of research and innovation, which Dr. Cukier headed.

The investigation began with an anonymous e-mail alleging that overwork, bullying and public criticism had created a "toxic work environment" in which lower-level employees were fearful for their jobs.

"All the literature on crisis management on campus say deal with it immediately, up front, don't try and bury it," said Ross Paul, a former university president and the author of Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President. "Versions of the facts will come out anyway," he said.

Still, increased transparency would not be easy, Dr. Paul added, because both Dr. Cukier and the university would have had to agree on how much should be made public.

Dr. Cukier's initial contract and any settlement that Brock made as a result of the cancelled appointment should also be released, said Linda Rose-Krasnor, president of the Brock University Faculty Association.

"We've had members who are interested in the costs of this thing," she said. "How much money was involved, if any was involved, is a matter of some interest."

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Brock has refused to release these documents, which are increasingly being made public by many Canadian universities when a new president is appointed.

Correspondence obtained by The Globe shows that a wide number of senior administrators at Ryerson were aware of the investigation, as well as the Ministry of Labour and one of the school's unions.

Then-president Sheldon Levy also knew of the complaint and requested further action be taken. Mr. Levy is now Deputy Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

The e-mails show that Ryerson conducted an investigation in August and September of 2015 and hired two external investigators.

Results of the Ryerson investigation were reviewed with employees in the department and with Dr. Cukier in a joint meeting.

A final report that summarized the results, however, was not publicly released.

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Dr. Cukier will be returning to Ryerson in September, 2017, when she will take up a post as a faculty member in the Ted Rogers School of Management. She is currently on a sabbatical from the school and has not responded to requests for comment.

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