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Liam Donnelly

Unfair procedure; unfair result
Fix procedure; fair result

Liam Donnelly

On May 23, 1997, Simon Fraser University (SFU) fired swim coach Liam Donnelly with cause, for "severe sexual harassment." SFU claimed his guilt had been proved by a three-person Investigative Panel which had found him guilty of numerous offenses including having sexually molested a student, Rachel Marsden, at least seven times during a sixteen-month romantic relationship. SFU also claimed that the Panel Report had been appropriately reviewed by President John Stubbs, who had confirmed the truth of the charges against Donnelly.

Donnelly maintained his innocence throughout, claiming that he had never even dated Marsden, that her story was a complete fabrication, that she had been the one harassing him, and that the Panel's decision was based on demonstrably false testimony. Stubbs was adamant, claiming that Donnelly's guilt had been proved and confirmed by the investigation and decision process, which had taken a year and a half since the charges were submitted. Further, Stubbs maintained that the process had met the high standards indicated in the leading quotation.

The case, which had been secretly processed up to the firing, became a media event, and questions were raised concerning the legitimacy of the decision and process. Within two months SFU reversed itself, exonerating Donnelly on all the charges for which the Investigative Panel and President John Stubbs had found him guilty. In agreeing to reinstate and clear Donnelly of all charges, SFU acknowledged problems with both the evidence and the fairness of the procedures.

The issues reach far beyond the administrative foibles of one university. Shortly after Donnelly was dismissed, Gregg MacDonald (presidential assistant at SFU) stated:

The Harassment Policy at Simon Fraser University is not dissimilar to harassment policies at other post-secondary institutions across Canada. (June 5, 1997)

The above statement contains considerable truth. Policies, requirements, and procedures vary generally, but nearly all schools have them, and the use of panels somewhat like the ones at SFU are more common than not. As the article in the Canadian Association of University Teachers journal states:

Many commentators noted that universities across the country were likely to reconsider their harassment policies as a consequence of this case. (Sept. 1997, p. 6)

John Fekete (1994) has demonstrated that many of the problems found in the Donnelly case are widespread across Canadian Universities. He documents how numerous innocent academics have been subjected to dubious and malicious prosecutions as the result of anti-harassment programs. These cases indicate that prejudice and special agendas inimical to both academic freedom and due process motivate these persecutions. Klatt (1997b), has analyzed the wide-ranging reach and dangers from the implementation of such policies without proper protection for the accused.

The issues raised by anti-harassment programs continue to be problematic in BC. Dianne Rinehart (June 20, 1998) raised numerous questions concerning the fairness of various kinds of harassment tribunals. She noted the Donnelly case and cited considerable evidence indicating that these tribunals are ideologically driven and often stacked against the accused. More recently, UBC President Martha Piper apologized on behalf of her institution for the havoc caused by their administration's credulous acceptance of the McEwen Report (Steffenhagen, Nov. 5, 1998; Klatt, 1997a).

Until the Donnelly case erupted, SFU was thought to have one of the better anti-harassment programs. There seemed to be an energetic effort to address harassment issues without the controversies that afflicted other BC universities. President Stubbs was generally well-liked and had tentatively been selected to serve another five-year term. Yet the whole arrangement was a time bomb waiting to go off. What follows might well be a cautionary story for many universities, organizations, and societies who imagine that their own arrangements are satisfactory.