Thompson Rivers University’s board of governors has initiated an investigation after a number of current and former employees — at least 13 — filed a complaint against two senior administrators.
The complaint alleges discriminatory conduct, discriminatory statements and/or harassment on the part of Matt Milovick, the university’s vice-president of finance and administration, and Larry Phillips, the university’s associate vice-president of people and culture.
The complaint alleges incidents of sexual harassment of female servers, misogynistic references to women and disparagement of Indigenous people at TRU and in the community, among other purported incidents. None of the allegations in the complaint have been proven as the university’s investigation into the matter continues.
On Feb. 8 of this year, an anonymous complaint was made to the board, which is currently composed of TRU’s chancellor (Nathan Matthew), president and vice-chancellor (Brett Fairbairn), eight people appointed by the province (Hee-Young Chung, Katy Gottfriedson, Jim Hamilton, Kathy Humphrey, Kathy Kendall, Lillian Kwan, Chief Jimmy Lulua and Marilyn McLean), two faculty members (Tracy Christianson and Hasnat Dewan), two students (Adam Burke and Bhavika Jain) and one person elected by non-faculty university employees (Jasmine Haskell). It is responsible for overseeing university affairs.
Kamloops This Week received a copy of that complaint, which was sent from the email address “email@example.com” to the board of governors and signed by “concerned members of the TRU community in solidarity with the complainants.”
Between February and November, KTW interviewed many of the complainants, who detailed their experiences. KTW has agreed to withhold their identities as they fear career repercussions. KTW will not publish specifics of the complaints at this time.
KTW contacted Milovick for comment.
“Having just received the Terms of Reference yesterday (Nov. 21), I understand that the TRU board of governors will begin or has begun a confidential investigation into my professional conduct. I welcome the opportunity to fully participate in this process. I will not be making any further comments at this time,” he said.
KTW called Phillips, but could not connect before press deadline.
Law professor supporting complainants
Thompson Rivers University associate law professor Charis Kamphuis has been supporting the group of complainants. She is not being paid by the complainants, nor is she the group’s lawyer.
Kamphuis said she first had questions about Phillips following work by her spouse in the 2018-2019 school year assessing university policies and practices with respect to human rights, equity and inclusion.
Milovick and Phillips are among the highest-ranking officials at the university.
Milovick leads TRU’s administrative operations and, on the university’s organizational chart, is one step down from the top, a slot occupied by president and vice-chancellor Fairbairn. Milovick manages TRU’s $238-million budget.
Phillips oversees hiring and firing of a university with 2,000-plus employees, including faculty, support staff and administration. He is also responsible for championing values across the institution.
Kamphuis said she is supporting the complainants and speaking out due to concern about the investigation that is underway and a desire for accountability.
Kamphuis said problems with the investigation include a refusal to exclude Fairbairn and general counsel John Sparks, who she maintains are in a conflict of interest.
Kamphuis also cited intimidating correspondence, months’ worth of delays, limiting access to the final investigation report to a board of governors sub-committee and refusal to protect complainant anonymity.
“We’re talking about allegations that there is a toxic culture at the highest level of the university and allegations that the governance, or the accountability measures, to address that have not functioned properly, so, I think, the broader community has an interest in ensuring this investigation is done well,” Kamphuis said.
“And that, if there are findings of misconduct, accountability occurs.”
Majority of complainants don’t know each other
Kamphuis has spoken to 13 complainants. She said she does not know most of the complainants, noting the majority of the complainants do not know one another.
Seven or eight of the complainants were involved in the investigation by TRU at the time KTW spoke to Kamphuis, while others were considering.
Some complainants declined participation after a request for anonymity was denied by the university.
Correspondence from former board of governors chair Barbara Berger — who was one of three board of governors members on a sub-committee overseeing the complaint — to the concerned members in support of the complainants expressed concern about the group’s desire for anonymity.
On April 1, Berger wrote that it is “problematic” that the group remains anonymous.
“We have informed you of our position on continued anonymity — i.e., that anonymity is not required to ensure a fair, trauma-informed process and nor is it appropriate as it fails entirely to respect the rights of the respondents or to allow for a proper investigation,” Berger wrote.
An April 27 response from the concerned members stated: “From the perspective of the complainants, you continue to impose barriers to a safe and accessible investigation that accounts for the complainants’ diverse circumstances, vulnerabilities, legitimate fear of retaliation, and the psychological impacts of the misconduct they have witnessed.
“There is an unequal power relationship between the complainants on one side and the respondents and TRU on the other, yet you insist on treating the respondents and the complainants as equals in your design of the process.”
Furthermore, the email noted: “There is widespread societal recognition that traditional institutional complaint and oversight mechanisms do not work. It is common for victims to remain silent or leave the organization, and for perpetrators to remain in positions of power.
“This societal problem is evidenced by the fact that situations of abuse and misconduct have persisted for many years in many Canadian institutions, as reported by the media in recent years. Thus, the systemic problem at hand is not one of fabricated allegations, but rather the silence and fear of victims and the impunity of perpetrators.”
Berger wrote back in May, stating the board of governors and sub-committee had retained Vancouver-based lawyer, Jennifer Wiegele of Mathews Dinsdale and Clark LLP, to provide independent legal advice, noting communication to follow would come from the lawyer.
Terms of reference outlining the investigation underway state confidentiality would be maintained when reasonably possible, but that “anonymity cannot be guaranteed.”
Complainants told KTW they fear ramifications
Complainants who spoke to KTW expressed fear of personal and professional ramifications and pointed to Phillips and Milovick being well-connected in Kamloops and their continued work at the university during the investigation.
Kamphuis said the complainants went to the board of governors because multiple people initially voiced concerns about Phillips and Milovick directly to TRU president Fairbairn.
“And what I’ve heard from those complainants, what we learned, is that the concerns they expressed were not investigated,” Kamphuis said.
“And that there was little or no follow-up. Furthermore, Larry was promoted to the position of AVP people and culture after both Matt, the VP finance who he reports to, and the president were aware of serious concerns and complaints. So those pieces were obviously of great concern.
“The other thing that we learned is that, in some cases, people who expressed concerns have been dismissed and, in some cases, they had been, as part of their severance agreement, made to sign a non-disparagement agreement, so an agreement that says that they basically, for the rest of their life, won’t speak negatively about TRU in any forum.”