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TRU faculty vote shows lack of confidence in university brass

Eighty-one per cent of faculty who participated in the vote said they did not have confidence in university president Brett Fairbairn and 83 per cent did not have confidence in university board chair Marilyn McLean
TRU campus signage HORIZ
Thompson Rivers University entrance at the east entrance and as seen on Oct. 2, 2017.

Faculty at Thompson Rivers University have expressed their lack of confidence in two university leaders following a vote held in late January.

TRU Faculty Association (TRUFA) president Tara Lyster said 81 per cent of faculty who participated in the vote said they did not have confidence in university president Brett Fairbairn and 83 per cent did not have confidence in university board chair Marilyn McLean.

Among 689 TRUFA members, 56 per cent took part in the vote.

“Moving forward, I think we need to address that. I think we need to address what the concerns are and what actions can be taken,” Lyster said.

While the focal point of many grievances is the handling of the ongoing investigation into two senior university administrators, Lyster said that is not the only issue.

“It was all the other pieces around that — the not acknowledging how people have felt about that investigation, or the lack of perceived empathy, with concerns faculty have brought forward,” Lyster said.

Among other issues Lyster noted were how the university handled its communications with faculty regarding the return to campus following pandemic-related changes and clarity as to who is leading certain departments.

The university has responded to the allegations against the two senior administrators in two ways: a board of governors-led investigation and a management response, which so far has entailed the hiring of an outside human resources firm called The Neutral Zone, as well as an HR consultant with post-secondary experience.

In February of 2021, a complaint from a number of current and former TRU employees was sent to the board, alleging Matt Milovick (the university’s vice-president of finance and administration) and Larry Phillips (the university’s former associate vice-president of people and culture, who left TRU in December) engaged in behaviour related to misogyny, racism and bullying.

TRU president Brett Fairbairn said he was not surprised by the result of the confidence vote and acknowledged that it is a “difficult time” for the university.

“These are things that happen and it’s not so much the vote that concerns me,” Fairbairn told KTW. “What I’m really concerned about are the feelings and the concerns of the faculty members themselves that are reflected in all of this.”

Other measures taken following the complaints include leadership development programs for all managers and mandatory anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for all employees.

“What will come next is really a broad engagement with all of our employees — not just to talk about individual concerns, but to collect their thoughts about how to improve our workplace culture,” Fairbairn said.

While Fairbairn did not provide a timeline for that consultation, another matter may cloud the discussion between the two groups beforehand.

At the end of March, the collective agreements are set to expire for both faculty under TRUFA and support workers who are organized under the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

While Lyster said the confidence vote was separate from bargaining, Fairbairn indicated it might have been a factor.

“A non-confidence vote by a faculty union isn’t a part of the university governance,” he said. “It has no specific consequences. It’s also not the first one we’ve had at TRU.”

In 2016, the same percentage of faculty (81 per cent) expressed no confidence in the university’s senior administration, citing poor leadership and a lack of respect for faculty input.

“That’s two collective bargaining periods ago and it was also during bargaining,” Fairbairn said.

At that point, the two parties had been bargaining for more than a year.

However, Lyster insisted the vote and its results are separate from upcoming bargaining.

“There’s many pieces to this and it’s not just about the investigation. There’s more concerns than that,” she said.