University ordered to pay thousands for relocating professor

Philosophy professor to receive $25,000 in damages

Professor Adèle Mercier sits in her office in Watson Hall on July 22.
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Since 1998, philosophy professors have occupied the third floor of Watson Hall. In 2013, one professor was forced to leave.

Adèle Mercier had been teaching philosophy at Queen’s for nearly 20 years when the University relocated her to an office in Mackintosh-Corry Hall. She was one of few female professors in the department, and had an even rarer specialty in advanced logic.

“I’m a woman logician, and you can count on the fingers of a hand the number of women logicians that exist,” Mercier said in an interview with The Journal. “And in that department, you can count on two fingers the number of people who have ever studied logic.”

The relocation resulted in an arbitration that spanned six years under the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal between Mercier and the University for its treatment of the long-time professor. 

In his decision, Kevin Burkett, the case’s arbitrator, called the University’s handling of the case “egregious.” 

On June 10, Burkett published his reasoning for awarding Mercier $25,000 in general and punitive damages from the University, which compensated for mental distress arising from injury to dignity and foreseeable harm to reputation.

The University declined to comment publicly on its legal proceedings with Mercier.

“The university respects Arbitrator Burkett’s decisions in this matter and believes they speak for themselves. Equally, the university values its employees and its relationships with their bargaining agents,” the University wrote in a statement to The Journal on July 25.

***

It was around 11:00 a.m. on Nov. 21, six years ago, when Mercier answered her front door to a hand-delivered letter informing her she could no longer enter Watson Hall, effective immediately. 

“I was gobsmacked,” she said. 

The letter was a result of cross-complaints of harassment between Mercier and two secretaries in the department, who claimed she posed a safety threat. Mercier herself alleged the two secretaries had told a graduate student she was a “witch.”

In his decision, Burkett wrote it was “not unreasonable” for the University to separate Mercier from the secretaries “in the face of tension that existed in the Department.” 

It was the nature of the relocation Burkett took issue with.

He wrote that, although the University acted reasonably in initiating an investigation into complaints surrounding Mercier and its decision to relocate her, “the University’s treatment of Professor Mercier in connection with the investigation/relocation was not only unfair, unreasonable and unprecedented but, in [his] view, deliberate and, therefore, egregious.”

In his decision, Burkett wrote having office space on the third floor of Watson Hall “was found to have been a privilege” among faculty. 

“The relocation, therefore, was significant,” he wrote. 

Burkett wrote it was also significant the relocation was effected after the University knew Mercier didn’t pose a threat to the physical safety of the secretaries.

Finally, Burkett emphasized the significance of the fact Mercier had not admitted to nor been found guilty of misconduct prior to the relocation, as an investigation was still ongoing.

He referenced the original arbitration award on Jan. 29, which stated according to these circumstances, Mercier’s relocation “should have been carried out in the least impactful manner.”

“It was not,” Burkett wrote. 

When Mercier walked into her new office in Mackintosh-Corry Hall in late 2013, it was all but empty. 

“I didn’t have a piece of paper, I didn’t have a pencil, I didn’t have a paper clip,” she said. “They refused to deliver my blackboard. There was nowhere for students to sit.”

Left with a desk, a chair, and an empty filing cabinet, Mercier had no access to support staff or a working phone, and her students struggled to find her.

“Finally they [would] find me, and they’d walk in, and here I [was] sitting in an empty room without a chair for them to sit on,” Mercier said. “It really looked like I was in exile.”

Decorated with a red Persian carpet, plants, and with access to support staff, Mercier said her original office was one of the most “beautiful” in Watson Hall. 

She wouldn’t use it again for four years.

***

The story goes back to the fall of 2008.

In 2014, The Journal reported that, six years prior, Mercier had filed complaints with the Human Rights Office (HRO) after more than a dozen female philosophy graduate students brought her concerns of misogyny in the philosophy department.

In her recent interview with The Journal, Mercier said she and two other female philosophy professors compiled between 70 and 90 incidents of student-reported misogyny and submitted them to the HRO. 

According to Mercier, the incidents ranged in nature from male professors ignoring female students in class, to male students ridiculing their female classmates’ ideas, to a male superior telling a female student he didn’t believe she could complete her coursework on time.  

“Together or separately, [they] suggested there was a poisoned environment in the philosophy department,” Mercier said.

While Mercier said one climate review of the department, performed by a third party following the complaints, determined there was an issue of gendered discrimination in the philosophy department, the recommendations given to the department to address the problem were only followed for a short period of time afterwards.  

She decided to bring the discrimination complaints to the Human Rights Tribunal, but that’s when her labour grievances started piling up. 

Shortly before Mercier filed her discrimination application at the Tribunal, she sent the documented complaints to the various respondents in her department, which Mercier said kickstarted an “academic mobbing.”

Mercier—represented by the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) in her labour grievances—underwent discipline for cc’ing university administration in an email criticizing a department meeting. Mercier said colleagues had cc’d administrative representatives as well without facing discipline. 

Mercier said she and the Union were concerned she was climbing the “discipline ladder,” as she was first warned, then suspended for one day with pay, and again for one day without pay.

As tension between Mercier and her colleagues in the philosophy department increased, Mercier said she became too sick to go to work. 

***

“I basically developed PTSD,” Mercier said when asked to describe the nature of her medical leave. 

In late 2013, Mercier said she had been told she could only communicate with the secretaries through a third party, and had already been disciplined for asking her husband to relay a message to them earlier that year. 

It was nearing exam season, and Mercier said she had asked her students whether they wanted an extra tutorial session. When the majority of her students expressed an interest in the extra time, Mercier asked her teaching assistant to call the secretaries to book a room for the session, and then turned to the chalkboard to resume her lesson.

“I just completely froze with my hand on the chalk,” Mercier said. “I completely forgot what I was going to write, and all I was thinking was, oh my god, was I allowed to have my TA call the secretary?” 

When Mercier woke up another morning that fall, she felt ill.

“I had breakfast and I was reviewing my logic class,” she said. “And then I felt completely nauseous.”

Mercier didn’t go into work that day, and shortly after her office relocation, she went on sick leave. 

“It made me sick—really, really sick,” she said. “I was a very, very accomplished philosopher at the time that this started happening, and it really destroyed my career. For four years, there was nobody to teach [students] advanced logic.”

According to Mercier, her doctor said it was important for her recuperation that she return to her office in Watson Hall. The University wanted evidence.  

***

Mercier said an external investigation performed by Elizabeth Hewitt, a labour lawyer, exonerated her from being a physical safety threat in 2013, but Mercier was still unable to regain complete access to her office.

“[Hewitt] said there was no evidence ever that I posed any safety threat,” she said.

Mercier alleged the University told her she could not resume working in her office out of concern for her health, and required her to undergo an independent medical evaluation (IME) to determine whether she could return to her old office in Watson Hall.

The University declined to comment on this allegation.

According to Mercier, the dispute over which doctor would perform the medical evaluation took two years. Eventually, she said, QUFA provided the University with a list of names to choose from.

Once the IME was completed, Mercier was finally allowed to return to her office in Watson Hall. 

When she resumed part-time teaching in 2017, she was still fighting the University on labour grievances alleging mental distress over the relocation. 

Two years later, on Jan. 29, 2019, the Tribunal ruled that Mercier would receive $20,000 in general damages and $5,000 in punitive damages from the University.

Arbitrator Burkett wrote, “an award of punitive damages is required in order to both underscore the nature and exceptionality of the treatment accorded Professor Mercier and to deter such treatment in the future.”

***

Restored to her office in Watson Hall, Mercier has still decorated the floor with a red Persian carpet, but the plants are gone. She’ll continue teaching part-time and work on a novel detailing her experiences, which she plans to call “My Brilliant Career as a Witch.”

According to Mercier, the Human Rights Tribunal wouldn’t pursue her original discrimination filing from 2008 while there were ongoing labour grievances between her and the University.

Now that the labour grievances have been settled, however, Mercier said she will return to her original complaint.

“I have applied to have the Human Rights application reopened, because now there’s no bar to going there,” she said. “We’re going to see if the Human Rights Tribunal will agree after ten years to reopen the file.” 

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