U of M should be investigated

Troubling questions about jazz prof go back years


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Jazz professor and performer Steve Kirby was once such a big deal in Winnipeg that his photographed face greeted passengers at the airport.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/09/2017 (1961 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jazz professor and performer Steve Kirby was once such a big deal in Winnipeg that his photographed face greeted passengers at the airport.

But this week, a less flattering portrait has emerged.

And troubling questions linger in the messy aftermath of a sexual-harassment investigation at the University of Manitoba that coincided with the sudden “retirement” of the head of the jazz studies program, who had been treated as a star.

Travis Ross Files Kirby left U of M amid concerns that a source described as ‘sexual in nature.’

The timing of Kirby’s departure, so soon after the investigation was completed in mid-June — and the fact that the 61-year-old was a tenured professor whose wife still works in the jazz department — suggests that a deal was struck for Kirby to leave quickly and quietly.

We may never know that because the university has invoked confidentiality clauses and privacy laws.

Nor may we ever know how many other complaints were lodged about Kirby during his 14 years at the university — even though, by stepping forward, the complainant who initiated the probe has given others the courage to contact the Free Press about complaints they made to the faculty of music administration about Kirby’s workplace behaviour and competence.

Complaints in writing that go back nearly a decade.

“Mine was basically about his bullying behaviour,” the graduate student told me over the phone this week.

She wrote to Dean Edmund Dawe expressing her concerns about Kirby getting in her face and shouting at her because she hadn’t acknowledged him with a public thank-you from the stage after performing at a recital.

Three months later, when there was no response to her first letter, she wrote again and included this prescient passage:

“I feel that this is an important issue that will reflect on the future of your department.”

It ended with her feeling it was her fault and that her concern was of no matter.

A year later, in 2009, Dean Dawe was the recipient of another letter that clearly should have caused him concern. Harriet Berkel, the parent of a 14-year-old girl who had been invited by Kirby to be a guest vocal student in the program, expressed a series of concerns she had during her time getting to know Kirby and having both him and his wife in their home.

She wrote in point form:

1) Why have so many students left this program?

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The University of Manitoba has received multiple complaints over the years concerning Steve Kirby, the former director of jazz studies in the faculty of music.

2) Are students intimidated from commenting on activities going on within the program because they fear retribution within the very small jazz community here in Winnipeg where Steve Kirby has so much influence?

3) Is it proper for instructors to house a student and employ her as a nanny while under their tutelage and responsible for her grading?

4) Is it professional for instructors to comment on other students to people — or should they refrain from such commentary?

5) Are students who toe the line being rewarded through patronage deals at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, etc?

In 2012, a member of the jazz studies program spoke with Dawe and reported his concerns about Kirby’s disorganized and disrespectful teaching. When he got nowhere, the professor left the program.

That same year, 2012, another female student had her “personal harassment” complaint against Kirby rejected by a university investigator because the date of the event exceeded the 12-month deadline.

That complaint alleged that in June 2011, Kirby had intentionally stalled her appeal of a mark “so that she would miss the deadline date for appealing her grade.”

The investigator did acknowledge there were “systemic issues… that are capable of resolution through an informal process.”

The student was disappointed but, while embracing the informal process suggestion, offered the administration this heads-up about the Kirby-run department.

“I am hopeful that this beginning collaboration will create the support system required to improve the environment of the jazz program.”

Evidently, that didn’t happen.

MATT DUBOFF Steve Kirby, a former jazz professor at the University of Manitoba, left the university amid sexual harassment concerns.

It took five more years and finally another complaint from a courageous young female student, but finally the university listened.

The U of M says it updated its policy around behavioural issues in 2015 and put it into practice last year.

And Friday, apparently concerned about how the university’s silence on the Kirby case looks, president David Barnard issued a statement that included this sentence:

“Although I cannot speak to any individual case, I do want to take this opportunity to emphasize the university’s unwavering commitment to fostering a safe, inclusive and respectful environment.”

That doesn’t appear to have been the reality for those students — and others — when they complained about the disrespectful environment they experienced because of Kirby.

Which is why another investigation is needed into the university’s own behaviour.

An independent one this time.

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