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Complainants’ advocate says reforms needed at TRU

Charis Kamphuis, a law professor at the university and advocate for the complainants, said the mechanisms of oversight on TRU’s executives need to be overhauled

A Thompson Rivers University professor has myriad concerns with how the university handled its investigation into claims of harassment against two senior administrators — and said reform is needed.

Last week, the university revealed a heavily redacted, 527-page report examining 55 allegations from eight complainants against two senior administrators, finding 10 allegations, all against one of the administrators, to be credible.

The substantiated allegations centred around inappropriate comments amounting to sexual harassment against women in the workplace or in social settings. One other allegation was deemed harassment targeting a particular age group, another involved a comment derogatory to Indigenous people and another was personal harassment.

Charis Kamphuis, a law professor at the university and advocate for the complainants, said the mechanisms of oversight on TRU’s executives need to be overhauled.

She said the confirmed misconduct begs the question of the university why the behaviour had been able to continue with apparent impunity, to the point where there were so many complainants with various allegations.

“It is not normal to have 55 allegations against two senior leaders like this,” Kamphuis said. “That, to me, points to a systemic problem with oversight with members of the executive and a need to develop a better system for that.”

TRU vice-president of finance and administration Matt Milovick and former associate vice-president of people and culture Larry Phillips were the subjects of complaints filed in February 2021. Last week, Milovick confirmed to KTW he had been fully exonerated in the investigation.

TRU has said it has developed safe, trauma-informed avenues for employees to report concerns and will create safe spaces for employees to talk about improving workplace culture. Kamphuis, however, said TRU’s actions require a significant amount of protection and support for complainants moving forward — more than the “vague commitments” the university has offered so far.

She said one area that needs updating is TRU’s whistleblower policy, which she described as “extremely weak” as it doesn’t provide supports or protection from retaliation to complainants.

Kamphuis, who was one of the complainants and has knowledge of other allegations, noted numerous concerns with the investigation.

She said just because 45 of 55 claims were deemed unsubstantiated doesn’t mean they didn’t occur.

“It just means the complainant didn’t have enough evidence,” Kamphuis said.

She said she was shocked there weren’t more substantiated allegations, given the number that were made, believing it’s a sign investigators employed a very high bar for complainant credibility.

“Things happen in private you basically can’t prove or you’ve told a partner or a friend or colleague afterwards, but that’s just not enough to prove to investigators,” she said. “They were very demanding with the standard they took.”

Kamphuis said she feels TRU handled the investigation in an adversarial way, noting it spent $1 million in legal costs during the investigation, but provided no funding for case managers to help complainants navigate the process.

Kamphuis was also concerned that investigators looked at whether complainants’ involvement with media impacted their credibility and that TRU blacked out in the report the number of complainants it excluded from the investigation.

Kamphuis said she hopes people will continue to speak out against abuse regardless of the report’s findings.

“That’s the only way we will improve our institutions,” Kamphuis said. “It won’t be fixed by one investigation and one complainant, but I think the more people do it, the stronger other people get.”

TRU Faculty Association president Tara Lyster said she is “heartbroken” for those who were shown to have experienced harassment.

“I want to acknowledge the bravery of those who came forward to make those complaints,” she said. “Now, we need to work toward ensuring there’s zero tolerance and that it doesn’t happen again.”

Lyster said the school needs to move forward with all campus groups.

“They can’t move forward without us. That includes TRUSU, CUPE, all of us. There needs to be a concerted effort to move us forward, because there has been so much harm on campus,” she said.