More problems for scandal-plagued Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Criminologist Russel Ogden has been a full-time faculty member who hasnâ€™t taught a single course in six years but has been paid since 2008, possibly because heâ€™s become an international expert in assisted suicide.
Concerns have been raised; posters drawing attention to his disappearance are displayed at the schoolâ€™s main Surrey campus.
â€œWhat has Kwantlen done with Russel Ogden?â€ reads one poster.
Ogden is neither dead nor in hiding. Heâ€™s living in the Vancouver area. Whatâ€™s more, heâ€™s still drawing his KPU salary. The paycheques have never stopped coming, even though the criminologist hasnâ€™t taught a single course at the university in six years.
According to public records, he received $87,910 from KPU in the last fiscal year. For what services, the school administration refuses to say.
One faculty member calls it a â€œbizarre situationâ€ in which Ogden is â€œpaid [as] a full-time faculty member but teaches no courses for KPU and seems to be banned physically from any KPU campus.â€
All this, apparently, because of his research interests and their controversial nature. Ogden studies what he calls â€œdeathing methods,â€ which include oxygen deprivation using helium and â€œadapted scuba technology.â€
He has attended at least five assisted suicides over the years, in Canada, the United States and Switzerland. In 2010, he wrote an academic paper titled Observation of two suicides by helium inhalation in a prefilled environment. He maintains that he observes death for academic research purposes only; he never participates. Itâ€™s an important distinction because in most of Canada, assisting with a personâ€™s suicide is illegal.
He was once arrested by Vancouver police after he witnessed a local suicide, but he was quickly released from police custody without charge. Odgen is also the director of the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die, a group that advocates for assisted suicide.
He has been summoned to testify in at least four coronerâ€™s inquests, most recently in November, when he was interviewed under oath about the 2012 death of another â€œresearch participant.â€ He retained his own counsel for that inquest appearance, although KPU â€“ as his full-time employer â€“ had an obligation to provide him with counsel, says one of his supporters, John Lowman, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.
KPU failed to meet that obligation, Prof. Lowman claims, so in December, he sent a formal complaint about KPUâ€™s allegedly poor treatment of Ogden to the Interagency Secretariat on Research Ethics, part of a larger federal government body that supports standards related to research on humans.
KPU president Alan Davis did not answer questions put to him by the National Post via email last week. On Friday, the schoolâ€™s director of external and government affairs offered a written response, indicating that an agreement was reached with Ogden, and that all parties are still prevented from discussing the situation.
â€œThe issues raised in your email regarding Russel Ogdenâ€™s employment relationship with KPU are governed by a confidential agreement reached in January 2011 between KPU, Mr. Ogden and the Kwantlen Faculty Association,â€ the response reads. â€œThe agreementâ€¦requires all parties to keep its terms strictly confidential.â€
Odgen declined an interview request, saying heâ€™s â€œnot really in a position to comment.â€
Ironically, Ogdenâ€™s area of expertise, research and instruction has never been more important to Canadians or more prominent in public discourse. Assisted suicide is the subject of intense debate and scrutiny across the country, because of high-profile cases, constitutional court challenges, and new legislation in Quebec that allows terminally ill patients a medically assisted death, under certain conditions.
As noted in the complaint, Ogden was hired as a full-time KPU faculty member in 2004. He taught courses in the â€œsociology of deathâ€ and the â€œsocio-legal aspects of assisted death.â€ In 2005, KPUâ€™s research and ethics board approved his proposal to attend assisted suicides.
But the school later withdrew the approval, explaining that â€œbased on our due diligence, including [two] lawyersâ€™ opinions, we concluded that there were real and unacceptable legal risks associated with the proposed research.â€
KPUâ€™s so-called stop-research edict caused friction inside the academic community. Appeals came from across Canada to support Ogden and his right to pursue his intended work, controversial as it was. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents 65,000 instructors, sought its own legal opinion from prominent Vancouver lawyer David Crossin. He found that Ogdenâ€™s research activities as proposed were unlikely to constitute a criminal offense.
But KPU did not move from its new position. In 2008, the university and Ogden reached what it called a â€œsettlement agreement on the issue of Russelâ€™s Academic Freedom as it relates to his research.â€ Mr. Ogden would begin a â€œresearch leaveâ€ on Jan. 1, 2009, and he would resume teaching at KPU on Jan. 1, 2011, according to an administrative memo to faculty members. No more terms of settlement were disclosed.
Mr. Ogdenâ€™s colleagues and friends were stunned. â€œ[His] research was funded, it was underway, it was in progress,â€ Prof. Lowman said after the settlement agreement was announced. â€œThis is the first time weâ€™ve been made aware of a university prohibition on research that had already been vetted and approved.â€
Ogden left the KPU campus and while he didnâ€™t return in 2011 as scheduled, he continued to draw salary like a full-time instructor. He didnâ€™t really seem to be on â€œresearch leave,â€ because there appeared to be no oversight or reports of his research activities, something that would normally be expected. Ogdenâ€™s KPU colleagues say he did participate in certain university-related functions, such as union meetings. Just never on school property.
â€œRussel Ogden has been successfully disappeared from this institution,â€ said Greg Jenion, a fellow KPU criminology professor. â€œThe administration has put a lid of silence over [the matter]. They will not speak to it.â€
As his supporters point out, Odgen has broken no laws and heâ€™s committed no crimes. They say heâ€™s being silenced and pushed to the sidelines by a fumble-prone university administration thatâ€™s reeling from myriad other controversies, including wrongful dismissal law suits launched by former employees, with allegations of abusive behaviour and â€œirregular and wasteful spendingâ€ inside KPUâ€™s executive offices.
The latest scandal involves a dubious executive salary compensation scheme that came to light early last year and reached into Premier Christy Clarkâ€™s provincial cabinet.
Amrik Virk was an RCMP officer and a member of KPUâ€™s board of governors before entering politics and winning a seat in the B.C. legislature. Clark appointed him minister of advanced education in 2013. Then it was discovered that Virk, while serving as a KPU governor a year earlier, had knowledge of questionable compensation packages and proposed payments to several of the schoolâ€™s most senior executives, including Davis. Virk was shuffled to a different cabinet position last month.
Things seem awry inside KPUâ€™s executive offices and everyone should be concerned, said Prof. Jenion. After all, KPU is a publicly funded institution and must account for its spending, to the province and to taxpayers. The Russel Ogden affair raises additional issues, he says, including academic freedom, or lack of it.
SFU criminologist John Lowman goes even further.
â€œA huge injustice has been done to Ogden,â€ he said. â€œThis is a world-leading researcher weâ€™re talking about, who has done nothing wrong, yet the academy has shut him out and wonâ€™t even explain why. Itâ€™s disgraceful.â€
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