Concerns building about B.C. university's investigation into 2 senior leaders

·4 min read
Larry Phillips, left, was the assistant vice-president of people and culture at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. His former boss Matt Milovick, right, is the university's vice-president of finance and administration.  (Thompson Rivers University/Twitter and TRU.ca - image credit)
Larry Phillips, left, was the assistant vice-president of people and culture at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. His former boss Matt Milovick, right, is the university's vice-president of finance and administration. (Thompson Rivers University/Twitter and TRU.ca - image credit)

Staff and faculty at B.C.'s Thompson Rivers University are sharing a growing lack of confidence in how the school is handling an investigation into allegations of harassment, bullying and anti-Indigenous racism involving two senior leaders.

Matt Milovick, the university's vice-president of finance and administration, and his former subordinate Larry Phillips are accused of fostering a toxic workplace at the Kamloops university. The allegations against Phillips also include sexual harassment.

None of the allegations have been proven.

Since news broke in November about TRU's investigation into the two men, Phillips has left the school and his position as the assistant vice president of people and culture. No reason has been given for his departure.

But Milovick remains on the job, which is a key point of concern for the staff and faculty who've spoken to CBC.

Shelly Johnson, an associate professor and Canada research chair in Indigenizing higher education, said she's "incredulous" that Milovick hasn't been suspended while the investigation is underway.

"[There are] many reports and allegations of his anti-Indigenous and racist direction to his staff and comments to others. I guess for us that's most concerning, in that he remains in his position and has power and influence over his staff," she said.

People who've spoken to CBC about their experiences with Milovick and Phillips remembered encounters that suggested anti-Indigenous attitudes from both men, along with comments they described as racist.

TRU's students union, the university's faculty association, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and both the local and national branches of the Canadian Union of Public Employees have all called for Milovick to be placed on paid leave until the investigation is complete.

Just this week, a letter to university president Brett Fairbairn from the faculty association's decolonization, reconciliation and Indigenization committee suggested that by allowing Milovick to remain on the job, the administration is creating an unsafe workplace for Indigenous employees.

At the same time, Johnson said neither the president nor the TRU board of governors have contacted Indigenous faculty to ask how they're doing.

"I don't see much responsibility or accountability to reach out to Indigenous faculty, who I can tell you are feeling quite harmed by these allegations and reports," she said.

Miloveck told CBC in November that he welcomes the opportunity to participate in the investigation into his conduct, but will not be commenting further.

Resignations linked to investigation concerns

Staff and faculty have stressed that good work is being done at TRU on the issues of equity, diversity, inclusiveness and decolonization.

But three out of five people the school has hired to do that work have resigned in the last six months, and resignation letters viewed by CBC make it clear they left because they felt it's an unsafe workplace as a direct result of the investigation.

Meanwhile, there are other concerns about the scope and transparency of the probe.

The school's investigation, led by lawyers Kelly Serbu of Halifax and Sharon Cartmill-Lane of Victoria, will only cover allegations from about a dozen current and former staff and faculty who filed the original complaints against Milovick and Phillips nearly a year ago.

Board of governors chair Marilyn McLean told CBC that the scope was limited "in fairness to the respondents."

But Chelsea Corsi, co-ordinator of the university's Wellness Centre, said it doesn't make sense to exclude complainants who have come forward more recently with similar allegations.

tru.ca
tru.ca

The university says it has provided an alternative route for those people, using the school's internal processes.

Corsi said there are concerns that those processes aren't independent or trustworthy.

"A huge problem is that senior members of the executive are creating processes to investigate senior members of the executive. That's not an adequate alternative and [it's] really leaving complainants without a safe place to go to," Corsi said.

Calls for provincial oversight

Others at the school are wondering why they haven't heard from B.C.'s minister of advanced education, Anne Kang, or local opposition MLAs. In August, a group of the original complainants asked Kang to take steps to ensure the investigation was being handled properly, but she declined to intervene.

Wendy Hulko, an associate professor in the faculty of social work, argued that it's not enough for the full results of the investigation to be shared with a subcommittee that consists of just two people.

"That report that is coming out of the investigation needs to go to the whole board of governors, not just a little subcommittee," Hulko said.

"There needs to be an investigation into the handling. There needs to be more ministry oversight."

The investigation into Milovick and Phillips is now expected to wrap up by the end of March.

CBC has made repeated requests for interviews with Fairbairn, TRU's president. The school responded with a written statement saying, "Out of respect for all parties, he will not comment on the underlying matters until the board of governors' investigation has ended."

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