Globe and Mail

The professor, the student and the human-rights police

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 30, 1999

Nearly five years after his crime was committed, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has pronounced Donald Dutton, a 55-year-old professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, guilty as hell. And indeed he is.

Dr. Dutton is guilty of reckless disregard for the temper of the times. He's guilty of having dinner with the wrong student. He's also guilty of living in British Columbia, the world's steamiest hothouse for lurid allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment. Remember Rachel Marsden and the swim coach? Remember the so-called systemic discrimination that nearly shut down UBC's political science department? These cases turned into colossal national embarrassments. But still the harassment cottage-industry chugs on, staffed by a small army of lawyers, equity enforcers and human-rights commissioners.

According to the Human Rights Tribunal, which delivered judgment this week, Dr. Dutton's crime was not sexual harassment, but an entirely new offence called "creating a sexualized environment."

The case is a tangle of facts, interpretations and conflicting stories, with a mysterious tape thrown in for good measure. Here are some facts.

In 1994, Dr. Dutton had a student named Fariba Mahmoodi. She is from Iran. She was 32 at the time. At the end of the year, she asked to meet to discuss a research project and her plans for graduate school. They met once at his office and twice at his house. He often asked students over and sometimes gave them wine and dinner. He gave her wine and dinner. There were candles. He played music. He made a music tape for her. Ms. Mahmoodi later claimed he fondled her and promised to get her into grad school.

Several weeks later, in March of 1995, Ms. Mahmoodi sent a letter to Dr. Dutton saying that, if she didn't get into graduate school, "I will do whatever I can to destroy you professionally." Dr. Dutton reported this incident to his department head and to the campus equity office. She complained formally of harassment. The dean investigated, and found Dr. Dutton guilty of professional misconduct for blurring the line between personal and professional relationships, but not of sexual harassment. UBC offered Ms. Mahmoodi nearly $7,000 for counselling and lost tuition fees. She turned it down and complained to the Human Rights Commission.

Crank forward to May of 1998, when the case is deemed serious enough to be heard by the Human Rights Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that is not obliged to apply the usual standards of evidence or the usual burden of proof. It can put anyone it wants on trial. The case was heard by one commissioner, a woman named Frances Gordon.

The hearing was scheduled for a few days, but lasted for 22. Somehow, snatches of conversation had been recorded on the music tape. The tape was played over and over for days and days, to determine (a) how seductive the music was, and (b) how seductive the conversation was. It took 17 months for Ms. Gordon to ponder these matters. In the end, she decided there wasn't any evidence on the tape of seductive conversation or sexual contact, but the music, in her view, was definitely sexy. She awarded the wronged student a total of $13,000, including $4,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect, and $5,200 for counselling.

Dr. Dutton's expenses have amounted to upward of $80,000. He is a world-famous expert in violence against women, but his reputation has been smeared. He has lost consulting work and been picketed. He has, he says, "been put through a public shaming ritual."

A few more facts about Ms. Mahmoodi. She was a marginal student. She forged a reference letter she needed for admission to graduate school. She collected welfare and student loans at the same time, in violation of provincial rules, and agreed to pay back $4,000. On campus, she handed out leaflets about Dr. Dutton, interrupted his lectures to scream accusations at him, and left threatening messages on his voice mail. Eventually, he got a restraining order and made her sign a peace bond.

At the same time she studied with Dr. Dutton, Ms. Mahmoodi took two statistics courses from Jim Steiger, another UBC professor. She did poorly in one, and failed the other. He remembers her well. "She was far and away my worst student," he recalls. "She approached me after the grades were released, and begged for a pass. She told me that, if I didn't pass her, she was going to charge me with racial discrimination."

Dr. Steiger was shaken. He, too, thought of alerting the administration, but decided not to. He figured that, in the chilly climate of university sex and race politics, he would be a certain target for an equity-office investigation. He was stuck. He had her work regraded, then flunked her anyway. He recalls how she exited his office, yelling threats.

Dr. Steiger testified at length before the tribunal. His story was deemed not relevant. To him, the moral of the story is plain. "What happened to Don Dutton could happen to lots of people."

Dr. Dutton was certainly foolish for having dinner with a female student. But the price he paid was ludicrous. In British Columbia, there has been widespread outrage over the ruling and, now, it's the Human Rights Tribunal that is on trial. It stands charged in the court of public opinion with reckless disregard for civil liberties, a stunning lack of proportion, abandonment of basic common sense, the frivolous waste of public funds, and terminal irresponsibility. Like Dr. Dutton, it stands very little chance of acquittal.


Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services