UNBC refutes whistleblower, wrongful dismissal allegations

The University of Northern British Columbia is denying a former employee's claim that she was wrongfully dismissed because she blew the whistle on alleged improper conduct by the university's upper management.

In a response filed November 19 at the Prince George courthouse, UNBC says Heather Sanford was let go as the university secretary on March 13 to help deal with a $3.5 million budget shortfall at the university.

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UNBC says Sanford's position was being covered through "soft funding" and because of that, the position was being held on a "term basis" through a series of contracts, the last of which was set to expire at the end of June.

In a statement of claim filed in October, Sanford says had been dismissed because she had "blown the whistle" on how various matters related to the Board of Governors were handled, notably a salary increase for UNBC's then-president Daniel Weeks and terms of separation for then-vice president of finance Barb Daigle.

"The Plaintiff essentially claims that her employment was terminated because she was critical of how UNBC discharged its administrative and governance functions," UNBC says. "That claim is false and the Defendant puts the Plaintiff to the strict proof of each of her allegations and the reasons therefore."

As university secretary, Sanford says she was responsible for "ensuring the effective and efficient operation of UNBC's administrative and academic governing bodies."

But in the response, UNBC suggests Sanford's authority was limited to "advisory only."

"It (her position) has no gatekeeping or oversight function and is not charged with vetting or approving any governance issues. The Office has no decision making authority with respect to any governance issues."

UNBC goes on to say it acted in accordance with advice provided by the Public Sector Employers Council with respect to Weeks' salary increase and with legal advice with respect to making public the terms of separation reached with Daigle when she left in January.

However, while UNBC says Sanford was let go on a "without cause basis," it also notes that interim president Geoff Payne found Sanford "came across as confrontational," and wanted her to be "more collaborative which is better aligned with how universities generally approach decision making."

But with her contract about to expire at the end of June, and with Sanford on stress leave by that time, UNBC says Payne determined it would be unfair to engage her with respect to her communication style and that she was still remunerated to the end of her contract despite ending her employment early.

The claim also notes that Sanford is married to Dan Ryan, who during his time as UNBC's interim provost and vice president academic, filled in as acting president when then-president Daniel Weeks was absent.

Given her husband's role, it would have been inappropriate for Sanford to sit in on closed Board of Governors meetings when issues related to the president were discussed, UNBC says.

When Weeks went on medical leave in January 2020, it was Payne, not Ryan, who took over as interim president. Ryan, meanwhile, resigned from his position in August and went on research leave.

UNBC also disputes Sanford's claim that she was excluded from a review of governance at the university. While Sanford maintained the review should have been carried out by her office, UNBC says she was interviewed by a third party, consultant Harriet Lewis, who was put in charge of the review while former UNBC president Charles Jago was named a supporting advisor.

Sanford's "observations were included in the external review report."

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