The University’s attempts to prevent the release of a report on alleged violations of academic freedom are unprecedented, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).
In the agreement between the University and Professor Morteza Shirkhanzadeh — who the University had accused of workplace harassment — a provision was made which nullified the agreement if CAUT released a report on the case.
The report, published in April by CAUT, investigated the University’s actions against Dr. Shirkhanzadeh. It concluded that the University violated the professor’s academic freedom by disciplining him for posts on his personal website (as previously reported in The Journal).
The University had directed Shirkhanzadeh to remove 30 posts in which he accused senior Queen’s professors of research misconduct and plagiarism.
David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, said it’s the first time he’s heard of a university entering a binding contract to prevent a report from being released by a third party.
“[It] was an attempt to prevent CAUT, a separate organization that’s not legally bound by any of the contractual issues, from publishing a report,” Robinson said.
“The fundamental question is ‘what is the University afraid of?’ … Why would they be so obsessed with having this report come to light?” he said.
The move came after a series of allegations and counter-allegations from Queen’s and Shirkanzadeh.
On Aug. 26, 2014, Shirkhanzadeh, the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) and Queen’s University administration met to reach a settlement on the charges each had filed against the other.
Shirkhanzadeh and QUFA filed two sets of grievances against the University for their disciplinary action against him, while the University filed a workplace harassment case against Shirkhanzadeh.
On the day the University agreed to drop their charges, however, a provision was added to the settlement. The provision stated that if CAUT released its report, the University would hold the right to declare the settlement null and void — which they did on May 8.
Because the settlement granted Shirkhanzadeh academic leave for 2015-2016, the University has also rescinded that offer.
According to an email statement from Provost Alan Harrison, the University didn’t participate in the CAUT investigation because the CAUT had no jurisdiction in the matter.
“It is disappointing that the CAUT conducted an investigation of, and published a report on, a subject on which it has no jurisdiction,” the Provost told The Journal.
Harrison didn’t provide an answer as to why the provision was initially included in the settlement, but stated that the University responded to the report, as they were “legally entitled to”, by declaring the settlement null and void.
Leslie Jermyn, executive director of Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA), told The Journal via email that she couldn’t speak publicly about the case due to ongoing negotiations.
David Robinson, meanwhile, said CAUT’s report actually congratulated the University for clarifying their policies and procedures regarding allegations of research misconduct.
“When you read the report, it points out that certain mistakes were made, but I think the University is actually moving in the right direction to try and correct it,” Robinson said.
“On the other issue, around rescinding the disciplinary action against Professor Shirkhanzadeh, of course now they’ve backtracked on that and I’m quite disappointed about that.”
“Why Queen’s would spend so much time and money on what clearly was a mistake on their part, again, that’s the important question to ask them,” Robinson said, “I don’t think that’s going to look very good on them.”
Their investigation was much like a public inquiry, according to Robinson. He said CAUT contacted the University on multiple occasions for input, only to receive resistance.
“There are multiple opportunities for the administration to participate,” Robinson said. “In this particular case, they really didn’t want to because I think they were a bit ashamed about what had happened.”
Shirkhanzadeh said he hasn’t faced any new discipline since the settlement was declared void. However, he told The Journal via email that he fears he may still face discipline from the University for alleged harassment.
Although CAUT had known that the two parties had settled when they released their report, CAUT’s executive director, David Robinson, said they chose to move forward with publication because of the case’s national implications.
“One of the reasons why we wanted this report to come to light is that there are recommendations here not just for Queen’s, but there’s some broader implications,” he said.
The report recommends lobbying the government to establish a system similar to the one in the US where a federal office, independent of the institutions involved in research, oversees integrity investigations.
Currently, Canadian agencies that fund research, allocate the responsibility to investigate research misconduct to the institution of the professor in question.
Robinson said the association has been in contact with representatives from the Liberal and NDP parties about the issue.
“We need an arm’s-length federal office that investigates violations of research integrity, because the situation at Queen’s was not unique.”
Ted Hsu, Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands, spoke with Shirkhanzadeh in 2011 about policies surrounding research misconduct.
Hsu said there have been changes to federal policy regarding research misconduct, including new rules on releasing the names of researchers involved in research misconduct cases.
But he added that establishing an independent body would require collaboration from various stakeholders, including universities, researchers and funding agencies.
All investigative reports from the University are sent to the Secretariat for the Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR) — an oversight body that represents the government research funding agencies.
Queen’s Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Alan Harrison said he doesn’t believe any further investigative body is necessary.
“All allegations and assessments of those allegations are ultimately reviewed by a third party external to the university,” the Provost said.
“We believe the procedures as described in the policy provide a fair and transparent process for investigating allegations of research misconduct.”
Update: July 3 2015 – 2:00 p.m.
In an email on June 16, Shirkhanzadeh told The Journal that CAUT had agreed to cover legal costs for the two grievances he filled against the University related to academic freedom.
CAUT Executive Director David Robinson confirmed that they’d be covering Shirkanzadeh’s legal costs.
“We have agreed, under our arbitration service, to provide the Queen’s University Faculty Association [QUFA] with CAUT counsel with respect to the grievance involving Dr. Shirkhanzadeh. We are representing the FA, not Dr. Shirkhanzadeh” Robinson told The Journal via email, on July 2.
As far as CAUT could say, no meeting dates have been set.
A timeline of Dr. Shirkhanzadeh’s allegations to Queen’s about research misconduct. Click here to view the timeline in fullscreen.
The Journal will update the timeline as new information becomes available.
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