The president of the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) had been in his role for less than a year when the school’s vice-presidents sat around a dining table and devised a plan to get rid of him.
They considered Alaa Abd-El-Aziz demeaning, domineering and too controlling over the school’s finances, two of those vice-presidents have told Global News. The final straw came when two female employees accused him of sexual harassment.
The two vice-presidents say they brought their concerns to the chair of the Board of Governors, requesting Abd-El-Aziz’s immediate removal.
But that didn’t happen. Abd-El-Aziz went on to helm the school for a decade — a period of prosperity for the small, provincial university that saw it rocket up the Macleans university rankings, its student enrolment steadily increase and a raft of high-profile expansion projects get underway. Abd-El-Aziz was lauded with awards, national praise and gushing magazine profiles.
But it was also a period that a third-party review would later characterize as a “toxic” culture of harassment and racism, with rampant allegations of sexual and gender-based violence that the school failed to address.
That review would be prompted by another allegation against Abd-El-Aziz for workplace misconduct. This time, he would end his illustrious career in the aftermath, and the small, bucolic island would be left reeling.
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“I’ve never seen a report on a campus climate that was as god-awful as that one,” says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates in Toronto.
“But this report is not just about him. … This is a cultural problem. You can’t pin that on the top guy, that is a top-to-bottom problem.”
Because behind the success story of UPEI, was an apparent string of failures.
Global News spent four months investigating the former president’s tenure, reviewing leaked documents and interviewing about 50 past and present faculty and students, to determine what went wrong at UPEI.
Most of the people we spoke to were either bound by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or so fearful of backlash they would only speak on the condition of anonymity. They spoke of high staff turnover, terminations without cause, excessive use of NDAs and a “soul-sucking” workplace environment.
Abd-El-Aziz could not be reached for comment.
“He was an impressive guy — loud, charismatic, larger than life, there was an allure there … and he was doing so much for the university,” says one member of the 2015 UPEI board, which approved Abd-El-Aziz’s reappointment.
“He had four or five legacy projects, where most presidents have one. We got caught up in that as a board.”
Despite the controversy, Abd-El-Aziz was reappointed for a second term in 2015. That term was further extended in 2018 and 2021.
For the public, this was a university punching far above its weight — partnering with international universities, setting up a campus abroad, and wooing students from around the world — with an influential president that was helping to put it on the map. It’s every upstart school’s dream.
But behind closed doors, in a small community with little oversight, UPEI thrived on fear and intimidation, according to a 112-page report conducted by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson and released in June.
A “concerning” number of people experienced things that went against the university’s fair treatment and sexual violence policies, the report said. It documented cases of misogynistic comments from graduate students and supervisors, as well as “lewd comments and suggestions” from professors to students. The behaviour “carried on for years without being addressed in any meaningful way, despite multiple complaints.”
But due to “obstacles,” including the non-disclosure agreements, the report said it “cannot, at this time, provide the university with a clear picture of the former president’s behaviour or its response to it.”
“We heard of instances of screaming and yelling among staff, faculty, and students, belittling or overly critical managers and faculty, gossiping and backstabbing, favouritism, the targeting of students by faculty for mistreatment, and the use of intimidation tactics,” the report said.
Over the past decade, UPEI’s impressive reputation came to precede it. So, too, did its president’s.
But it appears that reputation came at a cost.
“I always said to people that this university is the best kept secret in the country — bucking the enrollment trends, all these expansions,” Usher says. “You can see why they were proud of (the president). You can see why they didn’t want to rock the boat.”
‘He was a complete narcissist’
“If my son asked me today, ‘Would UPEI be somewhere I should be considering?’ It would be hard for me to recommend that.”
These words reverberated across the idyllic, tourism-driven island of PEI. Premier Dennis King, speaking in the legislature in June, said he was “sickened” to read the newly released Rubin Thomlinson report. Many shared his sentiment.
Located in the outer suburbs of the capital of Charlottetown, UPEI is a small university of about 5,800 students, celebrated for its veterinary medicine program. Its 2022-2023 operating revenue was $163.6 million, with about $60.1 from endowments, $71.8m from the provincial government and $58.7m from tuition.
Even operating with a fraction of the budget of the country’s biggest universities (such as the University of Toronto’s $3.36 billion), over the past two decades, UPEI managed to position itself as one of Canada’s most successful institutions. By 2023, Macleans considered it the eighth best primarily undergraduate university in the country — up from 18th place in 2000.
Abd-El-Aziz arrived in 2011 with ambitious plans for UPEI, according to those who worked with him. His raison d’etre was the university’s international standing. In a decade, he increased the number of international students to 1,400 from 536. He opened the door for UPEI students to study abroad at 55 institutions in 21 countries.
A rise in international student numbers and huge infrastructure projects, such as a new faculty of medicine and a design engineering faculty — Abd-El-Aziz legacies — were widely credited within UPEI’s transformation.
“He had important international connections, and this was a big growth opportunity for the university,” a former board member says.
Another says Abd-El-Aziz was more interested in “establishing international ties” than “engaging with the students.”
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But some of his long-serving staff members say they were rankled by the no-holds-barred approach to his work.
“I had a number of meetings with Alaa from the get-go. I had alarm bells going off from the very beginning,” says Leo Cheverie, a former UPEI library technician and former CUPE president. Cheverie died in September.
“He was a complete narcissist. The way he spoke to people, the way he went about his business … I’ve never seen anything like it.”
But others say he was simply “quirky.”
“He was pretty full of himself, he didn’t mind talking about his achievements. But …he was incredibly kind,” says a woman who worked with Abd-El-Aziz, but did not want to be named due to fear of backlash.
He seems to further polarize faculty a little over half a year into his tenure, when he was accused of sexual harassment.
‘We didn’t think he was fit to be president’
Confusion surrounds those allegations. The two women who made them,, former vice-president of student affairs, and Erin Casey, former coordinator of the UPEI writing centre, have yet to speak publicly. They did not respond to attempts to contact them for this story.
A university spokesperson said “we don’t know,” when asked if and when the complaints were made to UPEI.
But, by early 2012, the four vice-presidents at the time — Phil Hooper, Jim Randall, Katherine Schultz and Carroll — were acting on them, two of the vice-presidents told Global News on condition of anonymity.
The four held a meeting where they agreed to take an “expression of no-confidence” to the board’s then-chair, Fred Hyndman, the two vice-presidents confirmed.
“We thought he should be removed. We didn’t think he was fit to be president,” one of the vice-presidents said.
It’s unclear what happened next. The wider board, seemingly, were never told. Global News contacted all 23 members of the 2012 board who are still alive. None of the seven who agreed to speak were aware of the vice-presidents’ concerns.
Hyndman could not comment because he was in hospital, a family member said.
In 2013, the women lodged complaints with the PEI Human Rights Commission regarding allegations of inappropriate comments by Abd-El-Aziz. The matter was settled through mediation.
At the same time, each of the vice-presidents resigned or retired. Randall is the only one still working at UPEI — in a faculty position. Casey and Carroll left their jobs and moved to Nova Scotia.
To fill the newly vacant role of vice-president, finance and administration, in the fall of 2012, Abd-El-Aziz hired a former colleague from UBC. Her name was Jackie Podger.
‘A culture of toxicity and complicity’
Abd-El-Aziz gave Podger “free rein,” according to several staff. One said Podger “played staff and Deans off against each other.”
Several people said she routinely fired staff without cause. Some said staff began to use her last name as a verb.
“The vice-president finance was running the place and so people who disappeared into the night had been ‘podgered,’” a former UPEI dean said.
Global News spoke to three former staff members who say they were fired from UPEI without cause under Podger’s watch. None would speak publicly. They each believe they were targeted for personal reasons — one believes it was because they supported one of the women who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Abd-El-Aziz. That staff member had to sign an NDA about his departure terms. If he didn’t, he said, he would not have received his severance pay and the matter “would have ended up in court.”
Kate Tilleczek, who served as the Canada Research Chair in Child/Youth Cultures and Transitions at UPEI before leaving in 2018, believes she experienced retaliation from UPEI administration because she supported three women who signed NDAs after complaining about sexual harassment on campus.
“I left UPEI for my own mental wellbeing. I don’t think they’re close to coming to understanding the damage that was done,” says Tilleczek, now an instructor at Toronto’s York University. “There was a culture of toxicity and complicity, and who was winning from it being there?”
‘He’s behaving himself, let’s move on’
When Abd-El-Aziz sought reappointment for a second term in 2015, he was riding high on a wave of several successes. He’d overseen the proposal development for a four-year degree in sustainable design engineering. The number ofwas up 17.5 per cent from the previous year — far surpassing the of about 9.5 per cent.
UPEI announced an eight-personto seek community and campus feedback. All were board members, except one “non-voting member.” That member was Jackie Podger.
Global News spoke to four members of that committee. Each agreed the committee received negative feedback on Abd-El-Aziz but provided differing opinions on which way it was skewed.
Each said they were not told about any payments, NDAs or the specific nature of the sexual harassment allegations.
“It was very secretive. We had nothing to go on,” said a member, who asked not to be named. “They just said it was handled and let’s move on.”
Another member said they asked for more information from the university, but never got it. “We took their word for it because that was all we were going to get,” they said.
Committee member Jim Sentance said they were told: ‘He’s behaving himself, let’s move on,’ that type of thing.”
Then board chair and committee member Tom Cullen said they “considered more than the negative feedback in deliberations because it pertained to the complaint, which the committee felt had been resolved by that time.”
The president’s reappointment was recommended because of his “strong record of performance and his enthusiasm for future projects,” Cullen said.
Global News requested the feedback under a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FIPPA) request. UPEI declined that request, saying it wasn’t legally bound to release the information. Universities were only brought under FIPPA legislation in 2019 on PEI.
Global News was leaked three pieces of feedback addressed to the committee. Each one requested a new president.
A letter from CUPE outlined significant issues with Abd-El-Aziz, including trust, a “climate of fear,” low morale, “huge” staff turnover — including an “almost total turnover in senior administration” — communication, layoffs and the sexual harassment allegations, among other issues.
Committee members Liz Maynard and Marva Sweeney-Nixon left the Board of Governors following the review. Sweeney-Nixon would not say if it was because of Abd-El-Aziz’s reappointment, but she had two years left in her term. Maynard could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Abd-El-Aziz’s star continued to ascend. He oversaw the expansion of the nursing school. He launched a new school of mathematical and computational sciences. In seven years, the university’s international student population had more than doubled.
In 2017 and 2018, he was named one of Atlantic Business Magazine’s Top 50 CEOs.
Perhaps his most ambitious project, an international campus of UPEI in Cairo — Abd-El-Aziz’s home city — was announced in 2018.
The same year, his second term was extended for two more years — a decision that was made by the board, without a review.
‘I have to make difficult decisions’
The following year, Abd-El-Aziz was awarded a Senate of Canada Sesquicentennial Medal. Then Atlantic Business Magazine named him their Innovator of the Year.
On Nov. 25, 2021, then-board chair Pat Sinnott informed staff and faculty that the board had asked Abd-El-Aziz to extend his term again. He would now stay on until June 30, 2025.
So, when Abd-El-Aziz resigned less than two weeks later, citing “the stress from the last few years” — the community was shocked.
The next day, Sinnott said in an email to the UPEI community that the board had learned about allegations of workplace misconduct against Abd-El-Aziz and had immediately brought them to his attention. Abd-El-Aziz resigned the following evening.
Sinnott announced the Rubin Thomlinson review the next day to “determine the facts surrounding these allegations.” It took 18 months to complete.
Though the report did not mention her by name, UPEI placed Podger on administrative leave the day after the report’s release. A week later, board chair Sinnott resigned.
Last week,is no longer an UPEI employee.
In response to questions from Global News, Podger said: “Anyone who has worked with me closely knows that I care deeply, that I am committed to fair treatment, that I perform my responsibilities with integrity and always had the university’s interests foremost in mind. In the course of challenging work, I have to make difficult decisions. Major decisions were always vetted and approved.”
A woman who worked closely with Abd-El-Aziz and Podger, but did not want to be named, said Podger was “a scapegoat.”
“She had the toughest job at UPEI — she was the bad cop and Alaa was the good cop. That’s just how it worked. The faculty did not like him. They got their noggins together and they wanted to get rid of him. And they did it.”
Others believe more decision-makers need to resign, for “protecting” the former president and allowing him to stay for as long as he did.
“There’s been no change. If anything, the people who keep getting away with these things are still able to get away with whatever they want,” says UPEI psychology professor Colleen MacQuarrie.
“Leadership at UPEI was to yell and demean.… there’s systemic violations of our policies. It is a soul-sucking workplace.”
MacQuarrie, who helped to support a student who accused the university of harassment, particularly railed against the use of NDAs.
“They’re designed specifically to prevent people from talking about what’s going on,” she says. “To me, it’s fraud. You’re receiving money for one thing, education, and you’re buying people off with it. How do they still have the public’s trust? Why are they still receiving public funding?”
Despite Premier King saying he would be reconsidering the government’s contribution to UPEI’s budget, in October, a government spokesperson did not reply when asked if this was still the case.
It’s September, the beginning of the school year. UPEI’s stately, red-brick buildings loom over bouncy castles. Students in blow-up sumo suits fling themselves at one another. Behind them, others quietly move their belongings into residences.
Abd-El-Aziz seems to be a phantom. A persistent rumour claimed he’d gone to work for the UPEI campus in Cairo. Both UPEI and Universities of Canada in Egypt said they had no current relationship with Abd-El-Aziz and he was not working for them while in Egypt.
There’s another about his former office – which supposedly had extensive soundproofing, no windows, or windows with black-out blinds, depending on who you spoke to, and a private bathroom — lockable from the outside.
In reality, the office resembles nothing more than a paper-strewn, chestnut tone-rich space fit for any high-ranking academic — with a window. The bathroom is lockable from the outside, though. That’s because there’s a filing cabinet in it, a UPEI spokesperson says.
Its new occupant, interim president Greg Keefe, laughs when asked if he’s taken a poisoned chalice.
“I called one of my siblings who’s a close confidant, and he immediately said ‘Don’t even answer the phone call’ [about the job]. He said, ‘Don’t do it.’ And then his next line was, ‘You have to do it.’ So anyway, it was certainly a daunting task. … it’s not easy. Put it that way.”
If Abd-El-Aziz was the loud and brash go-getter, Keefe is his antithesis. The former dean of UPEI’s much-celebrated Atlantic Veterinary College, Keefe is mild-mannered and reserved as he speaks about “moving forward” and rebuilding the public’s trust.
Meanwhile, Abd-El-Aziz’s mansion on the banks of the West River, in an affluent enclave west of Charlottetown, is lifeless. His wife, Valerie, remains at UPEI, where she works as a clinical nursing instructor. Valerie did not respond to requests for comment.
In UPEI’s redemption story, Abd-El-Aziz has been cast as the villain – and the university is keen to distance themselves from him.
‘We’re not good yet’
During a meeting in Toronto, new board chair Shannon MacDonald, the first woman to hold the role, speaks proudly about managing to cancel Carroll and Casey’s NDAs after a week in the job. She issued athem in August.
The two women then reached out to her to chat, MacDonald says. They have since offered to help inform future policy on harassment, and MacDonald hopes to bring them back to UPEI to visit as part of their “healing journey.”
“We’re not good yet, but we’re going to keep going until we are.”
MacDonald would not comment on what was happening with the 2021 workplace misconduct allegations, other than to say it’s “not being ignored.”
No new NDAs have been signed since December 2021, when Abd-El-Aziz resigned.
A university spokesperson said “to our knowledge, anyone who has requested release from an NDA has been granted such a release.”
“It’s a forward moving time,” MacDonald says. “We have a lot to do, but we’re going to try to do it all.”