In the tranquil setting of the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), a decade-long controversy unfolded, leaving its community in shock. At the center was Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, the president of UPEI. Abd-El-Aziz assumed the presidency in 2011, and in the following decade his position would include allegations of misconduct, a toxic culture, and a failure to address serious issues within the university.
Abd-El-Aziz’s presidency was marked by ambitious plans to elevate UPEI’s international standing. Over the course of a decade, he succeeded in increasing the number of international students from 536 to 1,400 and established partnerships with 55 institutions across 21 countries. His vision also included significant infrastructure projects, such as the development of a new faculty of medicine and a faculty of sustainable design engineering.
On the surface, UPEI thrived under Abd-El-Aziz’s leadership, experiencing a notable rise in national rankings and a steady increase in student enrollment. However, behind closed doors, a different narrative was unfolding.
A group of vice presidents, unimpressed with Abd-El-Aziz’s demeaning and domineering leadership style, came up with a plan to remove him less than a year into his presidency. Their concerns were not solely about leadership style. Two employees of the University had accused Abd-El-Aziz of sexual harassment, a revelation that served as the tipping point for the disapproving vice presidents.
Despite their efforts to bring their concerns to the Board of Governors and request Abd-El-Aziz’s immediate removal, their pleas did not go through. Abd-El-Aziz continued to lead UPEI for a decade, earning accolades, national praise, and high-profile profiles in magazines.
A review, prompted by another allegation of workplace misconduct against Abd-El-Aziz, uncovered a “toxic” culture of harassment and racism within the university. The 112-page report, conducted by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson, released in June, detailed instances of sexual and gender-based violence that went unaddressed for years.
The investigation, spanning four months and involving interviews with around 50 past and present faculty and students, revealed a climate of fear and intimidation. Many individuals, bound by non-disclosure agreements or fearing reprisals, spoke of high staff turnover, terminations without cause, and an overall workplace environment described as “soul-sucking.”
Despite the controversies surrounding Abd-El-Aziz, he was reappointed for a second term in 2015 and had his term extended in 2018 and 2021. For the public, UPEI’s success story seemed intact — a university engaging in international collaborations and attracting students from around the world. However, the allegations and discontent were large within the small island community.
The Rubin Thomlinson report highlighted many individuals who experienced behavior contrary to the university’s fair treatment and sexual violence policies. Misogynistic comments, lewd suggestions, and a failure to address complaints were documented over the years, creating a pervasive culture that the university had failed to confront.
One significant obstacle to understanding the full extent of Abd-El-Aziz’s behavior was the presence of non-disclosure agreements. These agreements, added with fear of reprisal, prevented the report from providing a clear picture of the former president’s conduct and the university’s response.
The controversy reached its peak in 2021 when allegations of workplace misconduct against Abd-El-Aziz led to his resignation. The subsequent Rubin Thomlinson review took 18 months to complete, uncovering additional misconduct allegations and leading to the suspension of vice president administration and finance Jackie Podger, whom Abd-El-Aziz hired.
UPEI, now under the leadership of interim president Greg Keefe, faces the daunting task of rebuilding trust and addressing the aftermath of Abd-El-Aziz’s presidency. The community remains shaken, with demands for accountability and transparency.
As UPEI navigates through this period, it is confronted with the challenge of not only acknowledging the past, but also implementing concrete measures to have a culture of respect, transparency, and accountability moving forward. UPEI’s scandal will undoubtedly resonate for years to come, serving as a cautionary tale for institutions to prioritize ethical leadership and the well-being of their community.