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McMaster professor fired for ‘unethical’ sexual relations with students

A committee found that Scott Watter, an associate professor, had sexual relationships with several students, including one who had suicidal thoughts and depended on him for support.

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A McMaster University professor whose alleged pattern of sexual misconduct with multiple students involved behavior the university called “unethical, inappropriate and in some cases exploitative” has been fired.

Scott Watter was removed after an internal committee tasked with reviewing the allegations concluded it was the “only reasonable outcome”, the University of Hamilton said.

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The committee found that Watter, an associate professor in the psychology department, had sexual relationships with several students, including one who had suicidal thoughts and depended on him for support and another he hired without disclosing the relationship.

In a joint statement, the university’s president and the chairman of its board of trustees said the decision was not made lightly but that it was “critically important” that the university act to safeguard student safety and maintain standards of the institution.

“This process has been a long and challenging ordeal for everyone involved,” reads the statement signed by President David Farrar and Jane Allen.

“This was an extremely serious matter and the university has a responsibility to allow the time necessary to ensure the process is thorough and fair to all parties.”

Watter does not accept the findings, his attorney said in a statement, and plans to ask a judge to review the decision.

Watter was suspended in early 2020 after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. He was arrested in June of that year, but a judge later acquitted him of the alleged sexual assault of a graduate student in 2017.

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When the university announced his dismissal this week, it also released a summary of internal hearings into Watter’s misconduct. A panel of three tenured professors reviewed the allegations over 14 days between March and October 2023 before recommending Watter’s dismissal.

The committee found that Watter had a sexual relationship with a graduate student who it knew had suicidal thoughts and self-harm, accusing him of exploiting her when she was vulnerable.

The committee not only found that he contributed to her self-harm, saying it became more severe and frequent during their relationship, but that he “encouraged” her, in part by offering her wound care and advice on how to reduce scarring. He also ignored opportunities to direct the student to outside supports, the committee found.

It also discovered that he had sexual relationships with two students he met on a website marketed as a platform for so-called “sugar daddies” and then hired one of them as a research assistant without disclosing the relationship. She also used the website to flirt with a college student whom she then invited to her office, although the two never met, the committee discovered.

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Unlike Watter’s criminal trial, the hearings did not turn on the question of consent, although he maintains that all relationships were consensual. Instead, the committee focused on issues of trust and power imbalances, along with university policies around faculty conduct and conflicts of interest.

During the hearings, Watter claimed he was dealing with issues of power imbalance in relationships, but the committee concluded that his attempts to reassure each student who expressed doubt were more likely to be manipulative, according to a summary report.

“Dr. Watter’s conduct was inconsistent with the core values ​​of the university and cannot be reconciled with the manner in which a faculty member should be reasonably trusted and expected to conduct himself,” the report reads.

Allegations that emerged in 2020 against Watter led the university to conduct its own investigation and suspend two other faculty members. Under pressure, the university expanded an external review to look at systemic issues in the psychology, neuroscience and behavior department, with a report recommending better training and supervision.

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The report, prepared by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson, said the department’s “collegiality” had “created a degree of complacency” that allowed inappropriate behavior to “go unchecked.”

A lawyer for Watter, who also represented him during internal hearings, said the university’s decision did not reflect the “reality of the allegations made against him.”

“The decision reflects a process that appeared not to seek to determine wrongdoing but to shift blame to Dr. Watter, to distract from the University’s handling of demonstrably false allegations against him and several others,” said attorney Warren. Mouck in a written statement.

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If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24/7 by calling Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566) or, for Quebec residents, 1 866 APPELLE (1-866-277-3553). .

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