Research assistants decry McGill University's whistleblowing policy
Article and Photos from the Montreal Gazette
By: Karen Seidman, Montreal Gazette
Published on: February 2, 2016
McGill University’s policy on safe disclosure has come under fire by some research assistants who are charging that the whistleblowing policy lacks transparency or accountability.
The policy allows McGill to pay lip service to research integrity while continuing to allow officials to “turn a blind eye” to misconduct, says the university’s union overseeing research assistants.
McGill associate provost Angela Campbell says the policy is merely one of several vehicles that can be used to report misconduct of any type — but it has “really big value” symbolically by creating a safe space for disclosure and showing the university is serious “about following up on those concerns.”
Sean Cory, president of the Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE), isn’t convinced McGill really is serious about following up on complaints. He filed an official complaint last September alleging serious misconduct by a professor at the university, including the misuse of research funds. While the allegations were investigated and deemed unfounded, Cory said the process and the lack of information provided to the “whistleblower” left him frustrated and wondering how effective the policy is.
While his complaint sparked an investigation, Cory was left out of the probe and was not informed of any of the reasons behind its conclusions.
Cory said no effort on the part of the university was made to contact him or question him on any details about the complaint. He says he simply got a letter in November from the university advising him an investigation was conducted pursuant to his complaint and a report filed, “thus bringing the process to a conclusion.”
He was stunned.
“I think that policy needs a lot of work,” he said. “Their whistleblowing policy is the equivalent of a dog whistle.”
The complaint Cory filed under the safe disclosure policy had been on behalf of some members of his union who had informed him of the misconduct. “If nothing changes, why should I file another complaint if we are in the dark about the investigation and all its findings?”
This conflict about the usefulness of the policy underscores debates going on at universities across the country, where whistleblowing policies are still uncommon but the pressure to have them is growing.
Discussions at many universities, however, have stalled because of the difficulty in trying to balance the rights of whistleblowers with the rights of the accused, says Susan Dimock, a professor at York University in Toronto who specializes in public policy.
Without such policies, “graduate students and research assistants may feel too vulnerable” to file complaints against faculty members “who hold the grants,” Dimock said. “Not only may their employment be at stake, but their whole career may be on the line.”
Therefore, as was the case with AMURE, Dimock explained that unions may still be called upon to file complaints because the stakes are so high for individual members — and because it is very difficult, when a professor may realize that only one of a handful of researchers could have reported him or her, to keep the whistleblower’s identity truly confidential and protect them from reprisals.
Campbell stressed that the policy, which recently underwent a routine review and revision, “undertakes to preserve the confidentiality of the complainant but it also undertakes to preserve the privacy, to the extent that it can, of the respondent.”
She called the policy “eminently fair” and insisted a “very thorough and competent” investigation was done based on Cory’s complaint, but “it yielded absolutely no evidence of improper activity.”
(She was able to share these results with the Montreal Gazette because the disclosure was approved by the professor, she said.)
Cory then filed an access to information request to obtain the investigator’s report, but was told by secretary general Stephen Strople last month that the contents of the report are considered confidential.
Article 4.13 of the revised policy specifies that “where the discloser does not have a legitimate need to know, the responsible officer shall notify the discloser in writing of the termination of the investigation without elaboration or reasons.”
According to Campbell, what’s important about the policy — which has, to date, only been used twice since it was adopted in 2007, with both cases resulting in the respondent’s exoneration — is that it provides another tool for disclosure and that it is meaningful for those who feel vulnerable in the system.
“Other vehicles at people’s disposal require someone to step forward and self-identify,” she said in an interview. That’s why “it’s important to have the policy even if it’s not used much.”
The policy has a mechanism in place to protect the whistleblower against retaliation, Campbell said, explaining that complaints are made to the secretary general, who then sends them to a “responsible officer” (depending on the nature of the complaint) who decides if there is sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation. If so, an investigator is appointed.
At Queen’s University, where there has been a safe disclosure policy since 2011, ombudsman Harry Smith said in an email that, while confidentiality of the discloser may affect the investigation, anonymous reports are accepted.
It is valuable for a university to acknowledge that wrongdoing can occur and to be committed to dealing with it fairly and protecting whistleblowers from reprisals.
“In certain instances, allowing anonymity increases the likelihood that improper acts will be disclosed,” he said.
While the policy there is undergoing its regular periodic review, Smith said the discloser is also only informed that an investigation has concluded, but also if any changes to university policies and practices resulted from it.
In Montreal, Concordia University also has a safe disclosure policy which is applicable to employees and which promises “reasonable efforts” to protect the confidentiality of the investigation. It also aims to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
While the Université de Montréal doesn’t have a specific whistleblowing policy in effect, media relations counsellor Mathieu Filion said there are many measures in place which are used by students, professors, employees and the public who have complaints — including the office of ombudsman, which accepts confidential disclosures, as well as an office to oversee complaints about harassment.
Similarly, the Université du Québec à Montréal has a set of mechanisms in effect which allow members of the university community to report, confidentially, any questionable practices that are illegal or not in compliance with its regulatory framework and ethics, according to Jenny Desrochers, director of media relations.
Dimock says whistleblowing policies are helpful for those who are vulnerable in the university hierarchy, yet she acknowledged the difficulty in preserving the anonymity of the complainant (where it’s required) and in fully protecting them from reprisals.
She said many faculty associations have opposed these policies but she believes they are worthwhile despite any limitations. However, she said providing the whistleblower with the outcome of the investigation is merely pandering to “idle curiosity.”
“It is valuable for a university to acknowledge that wrongdoing can occur and to be committed to dealing with it fairly and protecting whistleblowers from reprisals,” she said in an interview. “When people have that assurance in writing, they are more likely to come forward.”
One of the big problems with universities having these policies is that there is no federal office of integrity overseeing them, which results in universities essentially policing themselves. That becomes problematic when universities have so much invested in their reputations and branding in a highly competitive market.
“That has potential for conflict of interest,” said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “It doesn’t always provide for a robust investigation.”