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cw: mention of sexual assault 

Following what the university calls “serious allegations” of policy breaching, Scott Watter, an associate professor in McMaster’s department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, has been suspended from his position and is no longer allowed on campus.

Maureen J. MacDonald, dean of science, was the first to communicate these decisions in an email sent on Feb. 19. According to Wade Hemsworth, the public relations manager for McMaster, MacDonald’s email was sent to “those who could potentially be impacted by the situation,” including students, faculty members and staff. The email stated that an unnamed faculty member was under investigation. 

The email noted that there were “serious allegations that could involve a number of policies, including McMaster’s Sexual Violence Policy” but did not disclose any specific details pertaining to the allegations in order to “safeguard the privacy of those involved”.    

The recipients of MacDonald’s email were also informed that undergraduate courses would be reassigned to another instructor. However, the email did not detail which courses this reorganization would impact.   

On Feb. 21, students enrolled in History of Psychology, or PNB 3HP3, received an email from Ali Hashemi, a sessional instructor at the university, informing them that Hashemi would be the instructor for the remainder of the semester.

History of Psychology was one of the two courses Watter was assigned to teach this year. The other course, Human Perception & Cognition, or PNB 2XA3, was delivered during the fall semester and is a mandatory requirement for the honours PNB program.

When undergraduate students returned to class after reading week, they began to piece together who the email and allegations were referring to. There are 69 students taking History of Psychology this year, while the PNB program and faculty of science consist of an estimated 800 and 7000 undergraduate students, respectively meaning that the majority of students were not informed of the situation.

“Us students only recognized that [the email] was in regard to Dr. Watter as his project students and his classes were reassigned . . . I think only sending his [current] students the email was worrisome as these allegations are of serious concern and not even the whole PNB student population was told,” explained Alex, a fourth year PNB student who asked that only their first name be used.

“It makes us think about how many other things may be happening at the university that we are not being told about which is scary.” 

On March 19, The Hamilton Spectator publically reported that Watter was the professor under investigation. Watter is one of two professors who ran the Cognitive Science Lab at McMaster, which was established in 2003. Students have described him as a core professor in the faculty, having taught several mandatory courses over the years. 

In a statement published in the The Spec, Watter’s lawyer, Brent Foreman of SimpsonWigle Law, confirmed that Watter had been placed on “non-disciplinary leave of absence without loss of pay”. 

“To date, Dr. Watter has not been provided with particulars of the allegations and he does not know whether an investigation by the university actually has commenced,” said Foreman in the statement obtained by The Spec

On March 20, Hemsworth confirmed to the Silhouette that an investigation of a PNB faculty member was launched and Hamilton police were made aware of the allegations. The details of the investigation are confidential. Hamilton police spokesperson, constable Lorraine Edwards, confirmed to The Spec that they have commenced an investigation.

“Once Dr. Watter receives the particulars of the complaint, he intends to provide a full and complete response and to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made against him,” Foreman stated to The Spec. 

As news of the allegations came to light, some students were disappointed in the way communication pertaining to the matter was handled. 

“I’ve seen a very slow trickle through the department, a lot of word of mouth. For example, there are a couple of second year [students] in my lab who had [Watter] for their second year cognition course in the fall term. They had no idea what had actually happened,” explained a fourth year PNB student who wishes to remain anonymous.

“I think it’s [been] very hard [on students], especially having it be through word of mouth, because it’s not very sensitive to survivors. We don’t know who they are. They may be listening in on conversations and I think it’s sad that it played out this way,” added the student. 

When asked to comment on why the Faculty decided to communicate solely with Watter’s current students, Hemsworth stated in an email that “the Dean’s email [from Feb. 19] was sent to those who could potentially be impacted by the situation, including graduate and undergraduate students, faculty members and staff.” 

“I think the key thing is that it has changed how the department feels quite a lot even if you haven’t been directly affected. PNB is a very close knit department and it’s not unusual to be friendly with professors . . . so it’s really upsetting to have someone take advantage of that and the department is really feeling it right now,” explained a fourth year PNB student who wishes to remain anonymous.

Those in need of support can access resources through the university’s Sexual Violence Response Protocol, and can contact Hagar Akua Prah, the sexual violence response coordinator, at prahh@mcmaster.ca.

 

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