Prof fired for dalliances with students reinstated

College professor knew actions were wrong but lack of policy made discipline ambiguous

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has upheld the reinstatement of a college professor who was fired for having sexual relations with three students.

Greg Bird, 44, was a psychology professor at Lethbridge College in Lethbridge, Alta., Shortly after he began working at the college in 1994, Bird started a relationship with a student in his class. The relationship began after she finished the course and lasted for 18 months, during which time she took a second course from him.

In early 2004, Bird began an eight-month sexual relationship with another student. As with the previous student, he knew her from his class and became involved with her after she finished. After the relationship ended, the student took three more classes from him in which she received grades well above her usual level.

In the fall of 2004, Bird had a sexual relationship with a third student. After it ended in spring 2005, she withdrew from his class and struggled with other courses. Bird later completed an audit form for her confirming she had taken sufficient courses for graduation.

College investigated student complaint

Bird didn’t inform the college of any of these relationships until the third student filed a written complaint. The college investigated and interviewed Bird. Bird asked for a lawyer because he thought it might be used as evidence for criminal prosecution, but the college denied the request, only allowing a union representative to be present.

Bird told the investigator he only had a casual dating relationship with the student who filed the complaint and denied having close personal relationships with the other two students. The college didn’t believe him and fired him on Feb. 7, 2006.

Bird’s union grieved the firing, claiming he suffered from depression which impaired his judgment. He had recovered from the condition, it said, and it was unlikely he would have a relapse.

Arbitration board finds firing excessive

An arbitration board found Bird took advantage of his position to begin personal relationships with students in his class that became sexual after they completed his class. When he failed to inform the college of these relationships after two of the students took subsequent classes from him and he evaluated the third, it was a conflict of interest.

“(Bird) was in breach of trust of his professional responsibilities because his actions had a harmful, or potentially harmful, impact on the educational progress and achievements of all three students,” the board said.

However, the college didn’t have a policy covering student-instructor relationships, which resulted in some ambiguity in what was acceptable conduct. It also found Bird had more than a decade of service at the college with a strong teaching record and he suffered from depression. Though he initially denied the relationships, Bird later took responsibility for them and acknowledged they were inappropriate. This, along with the fact he was treated for his depression, made him a low risk of reoffending.

The board ruled appropriate discipline was an unpaid suspension of two years, two months and 21 days. It was unpaid because of his initial denial.

However, the board also imposed restrictions on Bird’s reinstatement. He was not to date or have sexual relations with any Lethbridge College students, he was required to disclose to the college any relationship with someone who had been a student less than a year earlier and he had to disclose to his supervisor any past relationship with someone who had taken his class.

The college appealed the board’s decision, claiming it wasn’t reasonable to reinstate Bird considering the nature of his misconduct. It argued he should have known becoming involved with students would create a conflict of interest with his position as a professor and his initial denial showed he knew it was wrong.

Court upholds reinstatement

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench found Bird may have known his conduct was wrong, but he couldn’t have expected it could get him fired without a policy stipulating such a sanction. He wasn’t told he should have informed the college of the relationships until the arbitration process. He had also apparently been told shortly after he joined the university that there was no policy and professors should just be discreet in such a situation.

“I find nothing inconsistent with the board’s finding that (Bird’s) conduct was wrong, he should have known it was wrong, but it occurred in the context of ambiguously defined boundaries and in the absence of an express policy,” the court said, “Which is one reason why the board found the misconduct not to be serious enough to warrant dismissal.”

The court also agreed Bird took responsibility for his conduct and the psychologist indicated a relapse was unlikely. Therefore, the court said, it was reasonable to reinstate him, especially since he had strict restrictions placed on him which decreased the likelihood of a repeat misconduct. If he did, there would be grounds for dismissal.

The court upheld Bird’s reinstatement and the arbitration board’s finding that a suspension of two years, two months and 21 days without pay was reasonable discipline.

For more information see:

Lethbridge College v. Lethbridge College Faculty Assn., 2008 CarswellAlta 911 (Alta. Q.B.).

Latest stories