Yesterday, Canada’s leading evening news program, The National, broadcast a short six-minute documentary on the John Stackhouse case. What is particularly significant is that the documentary introduces two witnesses to the public: Courtney and Indira. This is significant because the original Summary of Findings of the investigation posted by Crandall University was anonymous. And as I noted in my first article on this case, that reflects a weakness in the investigation.
So, what do we learn from Courtney and Indira? I have posted the documentary below. In my analysis, I will be responding, in particular, to the first 1 1/2 minutes of the documentary which engage primarily with their testimony.
But first, I want to make some important preliminary comments.
First, workplace investigations have two key parts: (1) did the conduct occur? and (2) does the conduct which occurred meet the relevant definition of proscribed behaviour?
Second, the proscribed conduct in question here is sexual harassment. For the purposes of this article, I will define sexual harassment as follows: unwelcome comment and/or conduct of a sexual nature which one ought reasonably to know would cause offense.
Third, within workplace investigations, the assessment of whether the proscribed conduct occurred is a balance of probabilities assessment (i.e. more likely than not). This is very different from a criminal proceeding in which the evidential threshold is beyond a reasonable doubt.
Fourth, when we only have access to less than two minutes of testimony, we obviously cannot do a proper investigation including credibility assessment of witnesses. But we can begin to identify the kinds of lines of evidence that can contribute to a founded allegation. So the fact that we now have direct access to at least some witness testimony provides a first step in assessing the allegations.
With that in mind, we can now turn to the documentary. I will offer my own debrief on Courtney and Indira’s testimony below.
Both Courtney and Indira appear, on the face of it, to be credible witnesses. Each had an appropriate affect and offered coherent and plausible testimony. There are several specific features of their testimonies which are worth highlighting from an evidential perspective:
- Courtney offers an important detail which appear plausible. Not only does she say that Stackhouse regularly commented on her appearance, but she specifies that he said something very specific in making a comment about whether she had dressed up for him. This is an unusual statement and it appears unlikely that she would mishear or fabricate something so specific.
- Similarly, Indira made a specific claim that Stackhouse referred to her as fetching, a term meaning attractive. This has the ring of truth: while the Captain of the Football Team might say a particular girl is pretty, he is not likely going to use this comparatively rare adjective. By contrast, fetching is the kind of term that one might indeed hear from a senior humanities professor.
- Courtney also notes that Stackhouse’s behaviour was sufficiently concerning to her that she modified her behaviour by intentionally dressing down for class: she gives the example of wearing sweats and a hoodie. This, too, has the ring of credibility to it and highlights the significant impact that his comments had on her in removing her sense of comfort in being in the class.
- Not only does Indira offer the detail of specific comments like fetching, but she also recorded them in contemporaneous handwritten notes. Notably, these notes are written in the margins of her classroom notes. This is very good evidence that Indira was logging her experiences with Stackhouse in real time and keeping a record of them.
- Courtney and Indira’s experiences are clearly different and so they do not appear to be evidence of collusion: each describes different behaviours and comments.
- Nonetheless, both Courtney and Indira describe a very similar pattern of behaviour in terms of the professor’s regularly comment on their physical appearance to a degree that made them clearly uncomfortable. This provides what we call similar fact evidence and means that together Courtney and Indira provide mutual corroboration to one another in terms of tracking the same types of behaviour.
- Given the specific details provided including the repetition of patterns and the details of specific incidents (asking if she dressed for him; saying fetching), it is very unlikely that either Courtney or Indira misheard and misunderstood what were otherwise innocent comment from the professor.
- There is also a lack of motive to fabricate evidence against the professor.
To sum up, Courtney and Indira provide significant evidence that the professor regularly commented upon their appearance in a way that left them uncomfortable such as asking Courtney if she dressed for him and calling Indira fetching.
Further, it is safe to say that very few twenty something students would desire such attention from a professor, let alone one approximately forty years their senior. Thus, one would have good grounds to conclude that this is conduct which one ought reasonably to know would cause offense.
To conclude, in this article, I have sought to provide a preliminary assessment of the evidence of the first two witnesses that have come forward in lodging complaints against John Stackhouse’s conduct. I hope that further witnesses come forward publicly to share their experiences. And I also hope that Stackhouse will provide a public response to these significant, credible allegations.