UBC Celebrates Legal Victory in Prolonged Discrimination Claim
The storm of controversy and commentary surrounding Cynthia Maughan, the UBC student who alleged discrimination by the university and several professors on the basis of her Christian beliefs, reached what many think is an ultimate conclusion a couple of weeks ago. The BC Court of Appeal for British Columbia released its decision in Maughan v. University of British Columbia et al, which capped something of a litigation nightmare for UBC. The court’s decision on CanLII is here.
Here’s a brief summary of the facts. Maughan was an Anglican Christian pursuing a Masters of Arts degree in English at UBC, during which time she alleged several incidents of discrimination occurred:
- An email was sent to the English graduate student listserv, where a student jokingly suggested Christians should be stoned; and
- She experienced what she said amounted to discrimination in a seminar course, where she asserted an anti-religious bias motivated the course’s professor to treat her poorly.
The professor had agreed to schedule a course event on a Sunday, refused to grant Maughan an extension on her final paper, provided negative comments on that paper, and awarded her an unsatisfactory grade, all of which Maughan attributed to the professor’s opposition to her religious beliefs.
Maughan, disturbed by her experience with the professor and disappointed with her grade, pursued redress through the avenues available within UBC, including an appeal to the Senate Committee, which ultimately ruled against her. She subsequently commenced an action against the professor, UBC and other professors who she alleged facilitated or ignored the discrimination she experienced.
The Court of Appeal emphatically rejected Maughan’s claims. The court held that Maughan presented no evidence to demonstrate that her treatment by the professors was based on her religion. Similarly, Maughan failed to show that they were acting in bad faith, which is a requirement under the University Act (BC) to establish negligent conduct in this sort of relationship.
The decision included a couple of important points for parties involved in these sorts of disputes:
- There is a high standard to meet for claimants attempting to win against a university or professor where something was done while executing duties on behalf of a university (see this provision of the University Act, from BCLaws). They must demonstrate bad faith – like malice or a dishonest purpose - which can be very difficult to prove.
- The strength and legitimacy of internal bodies devoted to dispute resolution is significant. The court referred to UBC’s Senate Committee approvingly as a “quasi-judicial body”.
- Despite the court’s conclusion, the fact that Maughan’s claim received the attention and resources of two judicial levels – requiring UBC to respond with counsel at every turn – shows the degree of concern courts have for university students, particularly ones pursuing advanced degrees. Maughan’s claim consumed a considerable degree of time, money and effort just to be dismissed for no evidence.
This article in University Affairs discusses the decision and other examples of student lawsuits and how universities and their lawyers are confronting them.
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