Human rights on campus

Human rights on campus
When one hears the call “back to school” we tend to think of small children and teenagers and grade school. However, we can also include young adults and university campuses in that refrain.

University campuses are busy and diverse places. While the purpose of universities is to provide post-secondary education to students, most, if not all, universities in Canada have policies or values statements indicating their commitment to safe and equitable campuses. In addition to the various administrative offices dealing with the business of delivering courses and conducting research, there are other offices to deal with various aspects of institutional and social behaviour affecting the dignity of students, staff, and professors on campus.

The good and bad behaviour that takes place in our wider society also takes place on campus, including human rights abuses and other serious and unwelcome behaviour.

The Dalhousie University Office of Human Rights, Equity & Harassment Prevention puts it this way:

“Conflict is inevitable when people work together and it is an essential dynamic in the growth and development of effective organizations. It is not necessarily a negative experience if it is managed appropriately and not left unresolved. Conflict may be required to surface issues which interfere with effective operations and result in strained relationships. Discussing these issues openly and respectfully can often lead to real improvements both in the workplace operations and in working relationships.”

The basket of challenges universities face includes the management of complaints related to discrimination and harassment under provincial human rights codes, sexual harassment, physical harassment, non-human rights code and non-criminal related harassment (also known as personal harassment), and accommodation of people with disabilities. Each kind of challenge falls under its own regulatory regime: provincial human rights codes, workplace health and safety legislation, accommodation legislation, the Criminal Code, and civil law.

In addition, there are different processes set out in collective agreements that operate on campus that must be followed for complaints against unionized professors and employees. Often complaints or issues are accompanied by emotional stress, so counselling services, coaching, and mediation services are often part of the process of resolving an issue.

Different administrative units of a university will be engaged depending on the issue and sometimes a variety of offices will be involved for the same incident. For example, a student-on-student complaint of personal harassment could involve counselling services offered by student services, as well as mediation by the human rights office and discipline by the faculty. A student complaint about a professor involving a human rights code-related harassment can involve the office for human rights, the faculty in question, human resources, and the union representative for complaints.

If a harassment complaint involves physical threats, campus protection services will also be involved. To add to the mix, student federations sometimes provide advice to students on these matters, and advocate on their behalf. Some universities also have an ombudsman to manage some of these conflicts.

When there are multiple services involved, privacy becomes another issue to be managed.

Institutional data also needs to be recorded and reported. Some of this information is available to the public through university web sites.

The variety of configurations of offices in Canadian universities is both interesting and surprising. One often sees conflicts in relation to harassment and discrimination based on violations of a provincial human rights code is dealt with by one office. Another office deals with non-code related harassment between staff. Yet another procedure is used to deal with non-code related harassment between students. These latter cases are often dealt with through student codes of conduct that contain a disciplinary procedure. In some cases the human rights office reports to the vice president academic and provost, in other cases to the senate and sometimes directly to the president of the university. It is likely these different approaches reflect the unique history of each university administration reacting to new legislation, specific events, and administrative structures that are particular to each campus.

There is no additional legislation that will simplify the path for the person who is experiencing conflict on a university campus. Each incident needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis and the path to the best outcome will depend on the facts and the people involved.

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