Lawsuit alleges that university failed to provide a safe workplace.
By Matt DiMera
A long-time former employee filed suit against Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) last month, alleging that interim-president John McKendry was abusive and violent towards her and that the university allowed it to happen.
A civil claim was filed in the B.C. Supreme Court July 26 on behalf of Sandra Kuzyk, who worked as executive assistant to several KPU presidents before she was fired by current president Alan Davis on March 27, 2013.
The lawsuit alleges that starting in 2011, McKendry’s behaviour was “increasingly erratic, violent, intimidating and harassing towards various employees of the University and, in particular, [Kuzyk].
It also claims that McKendry “repeatedly yelled, berated, and otherwise terrorized, threatened, abused and harassed [Kuzyk] at her desk, in his office and in front of other employees of the University. He threw various objects, including but not limited to files, documents, and binders at [Kuzyk] and others.”
McKendry started at KPU as a special advisor to the president in 2008 before becoming provost and vice president academic in 2010. He stepped in as interim-president in July 2011 after David Atkinson resigned to take on the presidency of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. McKendry left KPU at the end of August 2012, when Davis took his post.
Kuzyk first started working for Kwantlen in the mid ‘90s.
Kuzyk claims that in May 2012 McKendry confronted and forbade her from cooperating with an RCMP investigation into an alleged privacy breach relating to a student’s personal information.
The suit also claims that two other employees who also complained were later fired, alleging that “the university set out on a systematic termination of employees who had raised concerns over President McKendry’s abusive, harassing and violent behaviour and rewarded members of the Executive who failed to stop President McKendry.”
According to the notice of claim, former provost and vice president academic Anne Lavack was fired without cause by McKendry shortly before he left KPU.
The suit alleges that in August of 2011 McKendry’s behaviour towards Lavack became increasingly hostile and his overall behaviour erratic.
Former special advisor to the president Mary Jane Stenberg was also allegedly put on administrative leave in July 2012 before being fired without cause in October.
Kuzyk’s suit alleges that both women complained about McKendry’s behaviour: Lavack to the then-chair of the board of governors Gordon Schoberg in December of 2011; and Stenberg to Harry Gray in March and May of 2012 and to Schoberg in June of 2012.
The lawsuit also makes related serious accusations about former and current members of KPU’s administration, including the deputy-provost and associate vice president academic, Jane Fee and the associate vice president human resources, Harry Gray.
Kuzyk’s suit alleges that Fee began harassing her in August 2012. It also claims that Fee “continued to harass, abuse and utter untrue and derogatory comments about [Kuzyk], her character, job performance and reason for termination …”
According to Kuzyk, Fee worked with McKendry at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and McKendry ostensibly recruited her from SFU when he chaired the search committee for her position.
Fee declined to speak with The Runner about the allegations made against her.
“This is a matter that is before the courts and at this point we just have to wait until that plays out,” she says.
The suit also alleges that Gray witnessed “McKendry’s abusive and violent behaviour” and that although Kuzyk asked him to act, Gray “allowed the abuse and harassment to continue.” He also allegedly warned Kuzyk “against making a formal complaint or proceeding further with any other actions against the President.”
None of the claims made by Kuzyk have been proven in court.
A copy of a June 13, 2012 email from Gordon Schoberg to Alan Davis, obtained by The Runner, suggests that Schoberg and other board members were aware of allegations made against McKendry, among them Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk.
“Last night I had Amrik over to the house and we talked this out,” writes Schoberg.
“Apparently Sandy has a bucket under her desk and frequently vomits after her interactions with John. The staff have been fearful of coming forward thinking that their careers will be in jeopardy. I think you and I know that there could be a couple of others with similar fears.”
The email also mentions that human resources apparently felt helpless to deal with the issue.
Requests from The Runner for interviews to John McKendry and Harry Gray went unanswered.
In an emailed statement to The Runner, university spokesperson Joanne Saunders replied that KPU does not tolerate inappropriate action in the workplace.
“There were very serious allegations in the claim and we have responded to them fully,” she writes.
“Because this is now a legal matter, we cannot discuss the details at this time.”