Admin aware of Torcolacci problems in 2011

Former student says faculty and department “stonewalled” him

A slide from Melody Torcolacci's lecture on vaccines. The slide cites the National Vaccine Information Center, an American anti-vaccine advocacy group.
A slide from Melody Torcolacci's lecture on vaccines. The slide cites the National Vaccine Information Center, an American anti-vaccine advocacy group.
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Though Principal Daniel Woolf was unaware of complaints against Melody Torcolacci’s teaching until Wednesday morning, a former student claims the University was made aware of the complaints he filed in 2011.

Chao Gu told the Journal via email that he’d complained not only to Torcolacci but to many members of the faculty and administration: the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies (SKHS) Undergraduate Chair Kathy Jackson, SKHS Director Jean Côté, then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science Alistair MacLean, Associate Dean Bob Lemieux, Associate Dean of Studies Hugh Horton, Acting Associate Dean of Studies David Pugh and then-Senior Associate to the Provost Charles Sumbler.

He also said he lodged complaints with 2011-12 AMS Academic Affairs Commissioner Mira Dineen.

“All of them had stonewalled my issues, and [had] done nothing to help me,” said Gu, ArtSci ’12.

“The claims that the administration was not aware of the issues are false and absurd.”

Gu provided the Journal with various items of correspondence, including his first complaint, a Sept. 29, 2011 email to Jackson.

His initial complaint regarded Health 230, “Basic Human Nutrition”. He listed five concerns: Torcolacci’s PowerPoints didn’t include citations; her notes cited secondary reference sources, including Wikipedia and Mercola; she misrepresented some of the studies cited; she showed the class a video that didn’t disclose conflicts of interest; and because she said she’d test the class on viewpoints that are sometimes contradictory, she might not be able to separate these effectively when marking tests.

Gu told Jackson he’d spoken to Dineen, as well as “numerous” other students who shared his concerns, about Torcolacci’s performance.

Gu spoke with Jackson and Côté on Oct. 3, 2011. They told him the first two issues would be resolved. After receiving a PowerPoint that still failed to cite sources and notes that cited Mercola, he contacted Arts and Science Director of Student Services Sue Blake, asking to meet with Horton in order to file a complaint against Torcolacci, Jackson and Côté.

In his meeting with Horton, which Gu described as “extremely confrontational”, Horton was “very dismissive about the issues that I raised”.

On Dec. 6, 2011, Gu sent a letter to the Faculty discussing his experiences, asking that it be passed on to MacLean before a Dec. 8 meeting.

In the letter, Gu said he’d been dismissed by Côté, Jackson and Horton for his concerns; they told him “repeatedly” it was up to Torcolacci to teach whatever she wanted. When he later met with MacLean and Lemieux, MacLean admitted that his concerns were valid “to a certain extent”.

When Gu received his midterm from Torcolacci, he said, he’d disagreed with her grading. She “stood fast on her position”, so Gu took the issue to Jackson, where he was informed he had to file an appeal with the Faculty — specifically with Horton, which he felt would be a conflict of interest.

Gu said Torcolacci told him that the only reason she was teaching HLTH 230 was due to budget cuts.

After speaking with Sumbler, Gu was told Pugh would preside over the appeal. Pugh granted the appeal, but Gu found the language of a letter he received regarding the appeal to be condescending.

Pugh told him that the instructors felt the paper was marked fairly and didn’t see a justification for an appeal, and added that even though he’d treated the appeal “generously” he wouldn’t do the same with any others.

“I feel that with my dealings with the Arts and Sciences Faculty administration have systematically been unreceptive and been very hard to deal with,” Gu wrote.

MacLean told Gu he’d look into the matter.

Torcolacci didn’t respond to multiple interview requests from the Journal.

Dineen confirmed via email that she’d received a complaint in 2011 from a student taking a class taught by Torcolacci, and said she’d met with Côté to relay the student’s concerns. She said she was assured that “steps would be taken to ensure that learning outcomes were met”.

Provost Alan Harrison told the Journal via email that he’d never been made aware of Gu’s complaint.

“Charles Sumbler, who was a senior associate in the Office of the Provost in 2011, does recall that, at that time, a student raised concerns about a professor teaching another course in Kinesiology and Health Studies,” he said, adding that Sumbler referred the student to the Faculty of Arts and Science, and the student met with the then-Dean.

“Given this, Mr. Sumbler felt there was no need to inform me of the student’s concerns.”

Woolf released a statement via the Queen’s Gazette Wednesday, in which he said he’d become aware of the situation that day and had asked Harrison to work with the Faculty of Arts and Science to gather more information and see if he could substantiate the claims against Torcolacci.

“The university is committed to the academic freedom of our faculty members,” he wrote.

“At the same time, the university expects that faculty members will present intellectually rigorous research and course material and that they will present available scientific evidence objectively and declare their biases.”

Isabelle Duchaine, 2012-13 Academic Affairs Commissioner, said she’d received three complaints about Torcolacci, and that to receive more than one individual complaint about a professor was unusual.

Duchaine, ArtSci ’14, said she’d encouraged the students who complained to contact the SKHS, but now feels she should have been more aggressive.

“I’m not sure how many of [the complaints] were translated up into the Faculty of Arts and Science and how many of those were translated up to the provost or the principal,” she said.

After seeing a tweet from a student on Wednesday expressing disbelief that Torcolacci was teaching anti-vaccination views, she thought something needed to be done.

“If students are making complaints for years about a course and it’s not being taken seriously by whichever administrator should be tackling it on the ground, then we need to look at alternative methods,” Duchaine said.

“To me, that was making it public.”

Duchaine’s Storify that showed screenshots from Torcolacci’s slideshow on vaccination was picked up by media outlets across Canada.

“Unfortunately, if that’s what it takes to get some attention to what I see as a serious academic failing, then I think that’s really, really too bad,” she said.

“As an institution, we wouldn’t accept a professor in physics saying that gravity doesn’t exist, or a professor in astronomy arguing that the earth is the centre of the solar system, and we shouldn’t expect anything less from the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies.”

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