Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment and racial microaggressions.
In April 2022, U of T’s Office of the Vice-Provost, Faculty & Academic Life wrote to two alumni — Bryan Gee and Yara Haridy — to inform them that Professor Robert Reisz, a vertebrate paleontologist who has been a professor of biology at UTM since 1975, had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy and had failed to “meet the standards we expect of a faculty member.” U of T commissioned an external investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, racial microaggressions, and academic bullying against Reisz, which concluded in January 2022. The investigation came after Haridy and Gee reported Reisz to U of T in July 2020. As of October 24, undergraduate and graduate students still work at the Reisz Lab at UTM, and Reisz will teach two undergraduate courses in the winter 2023 semester.
In June, Haridy and Gee posted Twitter threads about their experience reporting Reisz to U of T two years prior. Haridy is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago who finished her masters degree in Reisz’s lab in 2018, and Gee is a research scientist at the University of Washington who completed his PhD at Reisz’s lab in 2020. In their tweets, they linked a Medium post that they had written, which includes screenshots of email communications with Reisz. The Medium post lists various incidents that Haridy and Gee reported to U of T in 2020.
On July 8, 2020, Haridy and Gee filed an official complaint against Reisz — a 72-page report detailing numerous incidents of “academic and sexual harassment” — to U of T’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB). Haridy’s report under U of T’s Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy was forwarded to the Office of Safety and High Risk in September 2020. EEB notified Gee in November 2020 that the university would undertake an investigation into his allegations against Reisz.
U of T commissioned Kenda Murphy, a legal counsel and workplace investigator with over 25 years of experience in civil and criminal litigation, to look into Gee and Haridy’s allegations. Haridy and Gee participated in numerous interviews with Murphy throughout the year of 2021. The investigation process took almost 400 days in total.
In her investigation, Murphy used the balance of probabilities standard of proof, meaning that she determined whether it is more likely than not that an incident happened.
In January 2022, U of T sent summaries of Murphy’s findings to Haridy and Gee. The university split up their reports. Haridy received the findings from U of T’s Office of Safety and High Risk. Her allegations were further categorized into two parts: sexual harassment complaints and supervisory conduct complaints. Gee received the findings from the chair of EEB.
In her investigation, Murphy found that most of Haridy’s allegations under the Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy were factually substantiated. Furthermore, Murphy wrote that the majority of Gee and Haridy’s harassment and supervisory conduct allegations were also substantiated.
Allegations under Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment
In her report to EEB, Haridy detailed numerous incidents that she perceived as sexual harassment. A number of those incidents were from a field trip that Haridy and Reisz took to Oklahoma in 2016 — Haridy, who was an undergraduate student at the time, was the only person accompanying Reisz.
In her report to EEB, Haridy wrote that Reisz had discouraged other students from going to Oklahoma. In her summary of findings, Murphy noted that it was “odd and unusual” that Haridy, an undergraduate student at the time, was the only one accompanying Reisz. However, Murphy also accepted Reisz’s evidence that he “did not arrange the trip to spend time alone with Dr. Haridy.”
Haridy wrote in her report that, during a car ride in Oklahoma, Reisz said to her, “if I were a few years younger, I could really go for someone like you.” In the investigation findings document that Haridy received from the Office of Safety & High Risk, Murphy concluded that Reisz had said something to that effect, stating that she found Haridy’s evidence more compelling than Reisz’s.
Murphy also concluded that during the same field trip, Reisz took a photo of Haridy “laying on the sofa, in shorts and a shirt, drinking a glass of wine.” Murphy acknowledged that Reisz did not recall taking that photo, nor was the photo on his phone or computer.
In her report, Haridy wrote that the same night, Reisz asked Haridy for a hug “while he was sitting on his bed.” Murphy accepted Reisz’s evidence that he had shared friendly hugs with Haridy on other occasions and that he shared hugs with “people inside and outside of his lab.”
Murphy further wrote that Haridy believed that the hug was a “demand and not a request.” Murphy concluded that Haridy’s understanding was reasonable “in the circumstances of the power imbalance inherent in a student/professor relationship.” Murphy found that Reisz asked Haridy for a hug when she was turning in for the night.
Murphy also found that, once in September 2016, Reisz sent a text to Haridy asking her to send him a picture of herself “looking ready to kill” or “looking dressed to kill,” when he learned that she was going to a friend’s wedding.
Haridy further reported that in September 2019, after she had graduated from U of T, Reisz referred to her as “babe” in an email. She attached screenshots of the emails in her report — Haridy’s response to that email said, “I suggest a quick and earnest apology.” During Murphy’s investigation, Reisz admitted that he intended to write the word “babe” in the email.
Allegations of racial microaggressions
In their report to EEB, Haridy and Gee described several instances in which Reisz made “racially motivated remarks.”
Murphy accepted Haridy’s evidence that, “When [Haridy] was volunteering at Prof. Reisz’s lab, Prof. Reisz peered over her shoulder one day and said that he ‘didn’t know that people like [her] were interested in this stuff.’ ” Regarding this allegation, Murphy also accepted Reisz’s evidence that he did not recall making this statement, and that he has students from different cultural backgrounds in his lab.
Haridy, who is an Egyptian-Canadian, further reported that Reisz made offhand comments to her about racial stereotypes like belly dancing. Murphy found that Haridy was “dancing around the lab one day” when Reisz asked his lab technician Diane Scott if Haridy was belly dancing. However, Murphy also accepted that Reisz holds belly dancing in high regard.
In the investigation report that EEB sent Gee, Murphy accepted Gee’s allegation that during their first meeting, Reisz asked Gee if he spoke Chinese, which Gee interpreted as a microaggression. Murphy accepted Reisz’s claim that he asked that question because he believed that, if Gee were fluent in Chinese, that skill could have helped Reisz because of his affiliation with Jilin University in China. However, Murphy also acknowledged that Reisz would comment on Gee’s lack of Chinese language skills over the course of Gee’s PhD program.
Supervisory misconduct allegations
Murphy accepted Haridy’s evidence supporting the allegation that “Prof. Reisz asks his recent former students for corresponding authorship and attributes his request to his need to satisfy his Jilin University publishing requirements.”
Murphy further found that Reisz spoke with Haridy about “her gender and minority status being helpful for her when looking for employment opportunities after her PhD.”
After Haridy graduated from U of T and left Toronto, Haridy tried to cease contact with Reisz by not responding to his emails. But Reisz continued to email her, and then eventually, emailed her PhD supervisor in Berlin. In her report to EEB, Haridy wrote that getting these emails was stressful for her.
Murphy concluded that it was reasonable for Reisz to email Haridy’s new supervisor, but she found that Reisz’s language in those emails was “objectively problematic.” Murphy reached this conclusion because she believed that Reisz “could and ought to” have used more neutral language in his emails.
Murphy accepted Gee’s allegation that Reisz commented that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, which was corroborated by Reisz’s admission of that comment to Murphy. Murphy also accepted that Reisz once commented, “You can’t joke about anything these days,” which was further supported by Reisz’s admission to Murphy that “that is the way that he feels.”
In his report, Gee alleged that Reisz had said, “Fellowships directed at underrepresented groups ruin meritocracy.” Murphy preferred Gee’s evidence over Reisz’s regarding this allegation. Murphy also noted “Prof. Reisz’ previous comments to the effect that diversity initiatives have resulted in one of his former students with excellent academic credentials having difficulty securing a position.”
Murphy also found that after Haridy had graduated from U of T, Reisz told a student about what he perceived to be Haridy’s shortcomings. Murphy found that Reisz had made similarly negative comments about other former students in the lab.
After the investigation
After receiving the summary of findings in January 2022, Haridy and Gee received confidential letters from the Office of the Vice-Provost in April. In those letters, which The Varsity has obtained, U of T accepted the investigator’s findings.
In the letter to Gee, Vice-Provost, Faculty & Academic Life Heather Boon wrote, “[Reisz] failed to respect appropriate boundaries and failed to recognize the significant power imbalance in the supervisor-student relationship.”
In the letter that Haridy received, Boon wrote that, of the incidents that Haridy reported, only the one pertaining to Reisz asking her for a hug violated the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. Other incidents, Boon added, “fall below the University’s expectations for behaviour of a faculty member towards a student they are supervising, fail to respect appropriate social boundaries and fail to recognize the significant power imbalance inherent in the supervisor-student relationship.”
In both letters, Boon wrote, “The University has taken corrective action.” However, Boon could not share the details of what action against Reisz would involve, citing privacy concerns.
In response to a question from The Varsity about what U of T has done to ensure students’ safety, a U of T spokesperson wrote, “The university has taken corrective action to prevent similar experiences in the future for our students.”
Through a Freedom of Information request, The Varsity found that two graduate students joined Reisz Lab this fall. Furthermore, four undergraduate students are working in the lab in the 2022–2023 academic year. Reisz is scheduled to teach two in-person third-year biology courses at UTM in winter 2023.
The university spokesperson did not respond to The Varsity’s query about the steps that U of T has taken to inform Reisz’s current students of the investigation’s findings.
In an interview with The Varsity, a student — who was a member of Reisz Lab at the time of the investigation and wished to stay anonymous due to fear of retribution — said that the first time that U of T communicated with Reisz’s students about the complaints and investigation was in June, after Haridy and Gee published their Medium post. Murphy’s external investigation had concluded in January.
In an email to The Varsity, the U of T spokesperson wrote, “The university determined that on a number of occasions the faculty member’s supervisory practices did not meet the standards expected of a University of Toronto faculty member and/or breached university policy.”
The spokesperson further wrote, “The faculty member is permitted to work with, supervise and mentor students.”
On July 29, 2022, Gee took to Twitter to announce that he had decided to leave academia. He wrote, “Robert and the ecosystem around him are emblematic of deeply rooted systemic issues in both paleo and academia. That environment is just not for me.”
On September 29, the UTM Research Office posted a tweet congratulating Reisz, who had recently published his 250th peer-reviewed paper. The tweet described Reisz’s accomplishment as “a rare and impressive research milestone.” Since the tweet was posted, numerous individuals have responded to the tweet with criticism. One user wrote that the original tweet celebrates “a professor with a documented history of abuse.”
Robert Reisz has declined The Varsity’s request for comment.
If you or someone you know is affected by the content in this article:
- Contact the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre at (416) 597-8808.
- Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040.
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511.
- Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
For further leads, please reach out to Nawa Tahir at [email protected]. For all other communications regarding this article, including concerns and correction requests, please reach out to Jadine Ngan at [email protected].