Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment.
On November 20, the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project — a survivor-led advocacy group that supports sexual violence survivors at U of T — published an open letter calling on U of T to terminate Professor Robert Reisz.
The open letter came after The Varsity published an article about an external investigation that found that Reisz had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy and had failed to respect supervisory boundaries. The investigation, which U of T commissioned, concluded in January of this year. Reisz currently supervises students at UTM and is scheduled to teach two courses next semester.
The open letter also called on U of T to publicly condemn Reisz’s actions, offer support to those affected by Reisz’s misconduct, and commission external investigations to review the university’s implementation of its policies.
As of November 27, seven days since its publication, the letter has garnered 1,419 signatures from U of T undergraduate and graduate students, campus student groups, students and scholars from other universities, and friends and family of U of T students.
In an interview with The Varsity on November 26, Micah Kalisch — founder and director of PEARS — stressed that the rate at which the open letter surpassed 1,000 signatures shows “that there is a community of people there who believe survivors and support survivors and want to see this campus be a safer place.”
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) are among the 36 organizations that have signed the open letter. The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council also signed the letter and shared its own council statement.
External investigation into Reisz’s misconduct
In 2020, Reisz’s former students Yara Haridy and Bryan Gee reported him to the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Haridy and Gee’s 72-page report alleged numerous incidents of “academic and sexual harassment.”
Following this report, U of T commissioned Kenda Murphy, a legal counsel and workplace investigator, to look into the allegations. Haridy and Gee received summaries of Murphy’s findings in January 2022. Murphy concluded that the majority of their allegations were factually substantiated.
In April, Haridy and Gee received letters from Vice-Provost, Faculty & Academic Life Heather Boon, in which U of T accepted Murphy’s findings.
Four undergraduate students are currently working in Reisz Lab and two graduate students joined the lab this fall. In October, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity, “The faculty member is permitted to work with, supervise and mentor students.”
PEARS open letter
PEARS demanded that, according to U of T’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Process Chart, the university president should strike a hearing committee to decide if Reisz should be terminated. Citing the Policy and Procedures on Academic Appointments, PEARS wrote, “Based on the findings of the school’s investigation, Robert Reisz’s actions constitute just cause for termination.” Since Reisz has tenure, Section 5 of the policy, regarding termination of tenured appointments, may be relevant. According to the policy, grounds for termination of a tenured faculty member include “gross misconduct.”
PEARS demanded that upon Reisz’s termination, U of T should provide adequate support and resources to his current students so that they can complete their degrees. They also wrote that U of T should hire another professor to teach the two courses that Reisz is currently scheduled to teach in the winter term.
Furthermore, PEARS demanded that the university publish a formal, transparent, and comprehensive statement publicly condemning Reisz’s actions, to ensure accountability. Additionally, PEARS demanded that the university issue an apology to the survivors.
PEARS further acknowledged that survivors at U of T would struggle with the news and require further resources, external to the university. The open letter states, “Knowing Robert Reisz has been found guilty and remains employed is an incredibly challenging, painful, frightening, exhausting, and hopeless feeling.”
In the April letter to Haridy, Boon wrote that the only incident Haridy reported that violated U of T’s sexual harassment policy was one in which Reisz asked Haridy for a hug. Another incident that Haridy reported — which Murphy found to be factually substantiated — was Reisz referring to Haridy as “babe” in an email.
In its open letter, PEARS wrote, “According to the students who brought this forward, many of his comments/actions were not found to be in violation of the policy; however, on paper, they should be.” Accordingly, PEARS believes that U of T’s sexual harassment policy is not being implemented in this case.
The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act stipulates that universities should ensure that their sexual harassment policies are being implemented. In the open letter, PEARS pushed for U of T to hire external investigators to review its policy implementation.
In a comment on the open letter, Khoi Nguyen, who identified as a paleontologist unaffiliated with U of T, wrote, “Reisz is a massively influential figure in Canadian paleontology. His firing will show that nobody is too big to avoid accountability and help retain early career researchers.”
In an email to The Varsity, Kalisch wrote, “I hope that the very very least we can do for [Haridy] and for any other survivor is show them there is a community of people behind them who care and are willing to fight for them.”
Governance and student union responses
This past week, the Governing Council’s University Affairs Board (UAB) and Business Board held meetings that discussed the sexual violence policy review. The UAB considers non-academic policies and the Business Board approves major business management transactions.
At the UAB meeting on November 22, UTSU President Omar Gharbiyeh said that Reisz’s continued employment at UTM “has reached a point of liability for the institution.”
Jay Prentice — PEARS’ internal director and events coordinator — also spoke at the meeting, urging U of T to take action.
In response to Prentice’s speech, Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh read the statement that The Varsity received from U of T Media Relations in October.
In an interview with The Varsity, Kalisch mentioned that university administration read out “a pre-prepared response” at the UAB meeting, which they felt was dismissive.
In the Business Board meeting held on November 23, Kalisch said that since PEARS published the open letter, PEARS executives have been communicating with survivors in need of support and resources.
Kalisch told the meeting attendees, “I am standing before you in a far less professional manner than I typically do because I am trying to explain how exhausted we are. None of my other colleagues could be here today because they are burnt out. They are terrified and they are heartbroken.”
In an email to The Varsity, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr wrote that, at the Business Board meeting, “I addressed concerns brought forward by our community in a recent open letter to the University (initiated by the PEARS Project), and recognized the work by PEARS and others to urge the University to do better.”
Kalisch told The Varsity that some members of the Governing Council’s different boards have approached PEARS representatives to express gratitude. These members told PEARS executives that they weren’t previously aware of the situation’s gravity.
In an email to The Varsity, UTMSU President Maëlis Barre wrote that the UTMSU has met with the UTM Dean of Academics and the Sexual Violence and Prevention Support Centre to discuss Reisz’s continued employment at UTM. The UTMSU is also organizing a protest on November 30 at the UTM campus.
In an email to The Varsity, UTSU’s Vice-President, Equity Sarah Rana wrote, “It is important for our community to recognize the impact this news has on survivors and racialized students and the ways in which they may feel unprotected and un-cared for by the very institution meant to support their growth.”
In an interview with The Varsity, Kalisch said, “Since the article came out, there’s been an increased number of people requesting resources or requesting time to chat with us.”
On November 26, Kalisch told The Varsity that some survivors, who were planning on reporting sexual violence incidents to U of T, have recently told them that they aren’t comfortable reporting anymore.
Regehr further wrote to The Varsity, “In light of what we have heard, it is clear that we still have work to do. The University is committed to creating an environment where all members of our community can live, work and study, free from harassment of any kind, including sexual harassment. We know that we need to continue to evolve our processes to meet the needs and expectations of our community.”
“For example, the University will be implementing the Association of American Universities recommendations related to sexual harassment and sexual violence to address the issue of ‘passing the harasser,’ and increasing institutional accountability through robust annual reporting. These are important steps forward in how we protect our community,” wrote Regehr.
U of T is one of two Canadian institutions in the Association of American Universities (AAU). One of the AAU’s recommendations is that institutions share the sexual misconduct history of their former and current employees with other prospective employers. The AAU also recommends that hiring committees request applicants’ sexual misconduct history from their prior employers.
A recommendation regarding ‘passing the harasser’ was one of the 12 sexual violence policy review recommendations that U of T officially accepted on July 15.
Regehr wrote to The Varsity, “Our commitment to improvement is ongoing. We owe our strongest effort to get this right.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment:
- Contact the PEARS Project at [email protected] for disclosures, trauma-informed support, and consultations.
- 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 Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at (416) 495-2555.
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at (866) 863-0511.
- For further resources, including information about accessing U of T services, visit the ‘Resources for Myself’ tab on thepearsproject.wordpress.com.
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].