LRB rulings reveal reasons TRU says it suspended professor

The LRB decisions of July 16, 2019 and Sept. 26, 2019, state that the university took action against Derek Pyne due to what university brass deemed his aggressive behaviour, including allegations he put his hands around a colleague’s neck and, later, mocked the same colleague, who was feeling suicidal.

A controversy at Thompson Rivers University in the past few years has involved professor Derek Pyne, his research into so-called predatory journals and instructors at TRU who have used them to have research papers published, along with his suspension and banishment from campus for much of 2018.

While Pyne has argued discipline meted out stemmed from his vocal opposition to the so-called predatory journals — dubious scholarly journals that charge money to have papers published, with no peer review — the university has publicly stated the suspension and banishment from campus was unrelated to Pyne’s research and pertained to matters it is unable to comment on due to employment and privacy law.

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However, a pair of B.C. Labour Relations Board decisions involving Pyne, the university and the Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association reveal why the university said the instructor was disciplined.

The LRB decisions of July 16, 2019 and Sept. 26, 2019, state that the university took action against Pyne due to what university brass deemed his aggressive behaviour, including allegations he put his hands around a colleague’s neck and, later, mocked the same colleague, who was feeling suicidal.

The two LRB cases involved Pyne as the complainant, arguing his union, the TRU Faculty Association (TRUFA), breached its duty of fair representation “by failing to take action on his behalf when the employer began targeting him as a result of his research and in a manner that violated his academic freedom.”

The LRB ruled against Pyne in both decisions — the July 2019 ruling on Pyne’s original complaint and his September 2019 appeal of the July hearing — finding TRUFA did indeed represent him fairly.

In the LRB decisions, it is noted the university demanded Pyne undergo a psychiatric assessment following the alleged hand-around-the-neck incident in 2015. That demand was rescinded when the union intervened on Pyne’s demand and, instead, a verbal warning was issued.

In January 2018, the university again raised concerns about what it considered Pyne’s “alarming” behaviour, actions that allegedly included yelling, banging and speaking to himself in a “strange” tone of voice.

The university again asked that Pyne undergo a psychiatric assessment, although he produced independent legal advice he claimed stated TRU had no right to make such a request. Despite that legal opinion, the union declined to intervene and the assessment was scheduled for June 4, 2018. However, the university banned Pyne from campus in May 2018 due to what school officials deemed “aggressive and inappropriate behaviour at work.”

Derek Pyne
Thompson Rivers University professor Derek Pyne, who teaches in the School of Business and Economics.

On May 30, 2018, and June 15, 2018, while still barred from campus, Pyne received two more written warnings pertaining to “communication the employer perceived as inappropriate.

Meanwhile, according to the LRB decision, the psychiatric assessment indicated Pyne scored high in the area of paranoia, in particular concerning the feelings of persecution leading to suspiciousness and hostility in relations to others. The assessment did not, however, otherwise disclose a mental-health diagnosis.

The assessment recommended Pyne seek counselling to help manage stressors at work and recommended that the university consider limiting his interactions on campus with members of his department if he did not take part in mental-health treatment.

There followed more concerns from the university about Pyne’s behaviour while he was banned from campus, leading to administration ordering a threat assessment to determine if Pyne’s return to campus would pose a risk to faculty, staff or students.The threat assessment recommended Pyne be allowed to return to campus under certain conditions and, on Dec. 6, 2018, he was permitted to again step foot on TRU property after serving a seven-month ban.

In dismissing Pyne’s complaint that TRUFA did not properly represent him in his dispute with the university, Jennifer Glougie, associate chair of the LRB, wrote: “Whether or not the employer targeted the complainant’s behaviour for scrutiny as a result of his academic research (and I make no findings in that regard), I accept that, in the union’s view, the complainant opened himself up to discipline in terms of how he behaved towards his colleagues and how he communicated the conclusions he reached about their integrity.”

In August of 2018, Pyne filed a complaint with the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Thompson Rivers University refused to take part in the association’s investigation, with university president Brett Fairbairn telling KTW that TRU declined to take part in the CAUT investigation due to B.C. privacy laws, which he said prohibits the university from sharing an employee’s private information. Even if the person signed off on sharing the information, Fairbairn said, TRU would need an individual’s approval for each piece of information released.

“So, a person can say they waive their rights, but we’d still have to show that they approved each individual thing we might release — and I don’t think that’s a reasonable process in a case like this,” Fairbairn said,

Nevertheless, the CAUT investigation concluded TRU administration’s actions breached academic freedom. CAUT’s committee of investigation found that TRU “appears to suffer a broad institutional weakness when it comes to understanding academic freedom.”

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