The two articles that follow deal with academic politics. The first tells of Valery Fabrikant, a mechanical engineering professor at Concordia University, who, having been denied tenure, murdered four of his colleagues. I covered the story for Saturday Night for over a year. The resulting article was then reprinted in Actualité in Québec, in Lingua Franca in the U.S., and won a Canadian Association of Journalists Award for Investigative Journalism. The version that appears here draws on both the original Saturday Night article and the version that appeared in Lingua Franca.
THE FIRST TIME I laid eyes on Valery Fabrikant was in a Montreal courtroom in April, 1993, during a hearing to determine his fitness to continue standing trial for the murder of four professors at Concordia University. Because I’d constructed a larger-than-life image of Fabrikant based on everything I’d read about him and a couple of aggressive telephone conversations we’d had, I was surprised by the small, wiry, nondescript man who actually stepped into the courtroom. Fabrikant is no more than five-foot-five and weighs perhaps 135 pounds. He had a self-important look on his face — this was his show — and his eyes kept darting around the room, observing people’s reactions, especially when he said something he thought was clever.
The trial had begun a month earlier with Fabrikant conducting his own defence; he’d been unable to find a lawyer he could trust. (By the time the trial was over, he would have hired and fired ten lawyers, accusing one after another of sabotaging his defence.) Fabrikant didn’t want to be found unfit. He wanted to prove that he was a peaceful and reasonable man who’d been provoked into committing murder by the way Concordia University had treated him.
There are two kinds of people, says a character in a Guy Vanderhaeghe novel: simplifiers and complicators. You didn’t have to be in the courtroom for more than fifteen minutes to realize that Fabrikant was a first-class complicator. He seemed to find it impossible to keep focused on his goal — demonstrating Concordia’s culpability in what had happened. He kept going off on tangents, attempting to prove that if only he were in charge of the courtroom, or Concordia, or the world, everything would be all right, and that everyone around him was dishonest or incompetent or a fool or a liar.
The question of his fitness had arisen as a result of the wild accusations he’d been making during the opening weeks of the trial. He’d accused the police of planting false evidence to make him look bad; they’d poured extra blood under the head of one of his victims, for instance. He’d accused the judge of having a “false” prisoner attack him on the way to court because his defence was going too well. The judge, he claimed, was part of a larger conspiracy to get him. It was at that point that the judge, Fraser Martin, had halted proceedings and called for the hearing.
The two court-appointed psychiatrists declared him fit; Fabrikant wasn’t psychotic, they said, and, generally speaking, he wasn’t out of touch with reality. But there was no doubt that he suffered from a severe personality disorder that greatly affected his interactions with others. He saw threats and persecution everywhere. That made him rigid and unable to put himself in doubt about anything. His narcissism made him insensitive to everyone around him.
Fabrikant made it clear that he had nothing but contempt for the two psychiatrists and immediately set about discrediting them. “When did you lie, now or then?” he asked, looking for inconsistencies in everything they said. He seemed oblivious to the fact that the jurors he was trying to persuade of the psychiatrists’ incompetence were shifting uncomfortably in their seats as he badgered the witnesses.
He brought in a psychiatrist of his own who testified that his client was unfit. He said Fabrikant was “pathologically narcissistic,” and had not only lost sight of the real nature and purpose of his trial but had demonstrated his inability to communicate with a lawyer. Fabrikant explained to the now thoroughly bewildered jury that he’d brought in this third psychiatrist to prove how unreliable psychiatry is.
His fitness hearing, which need have taken only a day, lasted a month. On May 10, the jury ruled that Fabrikant was fit to continue. But if I’d been a member of that jury, I would have been hoping to be persuaded that he wasn’t fit. I would have desperately wanted to stop having to be in the same room with this pathetic, deranged, clever, horrible man. “He’s a tragic figure,” I write in my notebook at the end of my first day in court, “but it’s much easier to feel sorry for him at a distance.”
The trial continued until July 30, Fabrikant bullying virtually every witness, comparing some with Nazis, laughing and sneering at others, reducing yet others to tears. His treatment of some witnesses was so abusive that Mr. Justice Martin excused them from the stand. Throughout the trial, Fabrikant escalated his attacks on Martin himself, calling him, among other things, “a puppet of Concordia.” Martin cited him for contempt six times.
On July 30, Martin terminated Fabrikant’s defence when he refused to abide by a ruling. “Do not scare me,” he told Martin. “I could not care less…. You are a low little crook.” Ten days later, Martin similarly ended Fabrikant’s summation, which he had turned into a filibuster, reading into the record every interminable memo and letter he’d ever exchanged with Concordia, comparing himself with the boys who’d been raped at Mt. Cashel and with a battered woman who shoots her husband. He was a battered professor. By the end of the trial, most of the jurors were doing everything they could to avoid eye contact with him. They deliberated for seven hours and found him guilty of first-degree murder. Martin sentenced a grinning Fabrikant to life imprisonment with no eligibility for parole for twenty-five years.
Despite all his provocations, Fabrikant got a fair trial. But for nearly five months he played like a blowtorch on the fabric of the justice system — crowding, hectoring, manipulating, jeering — seemingly aware that truly unsocialized behaviour has the rest of us and most of our institutions at a disadvantage.
Concordia University was founded in 1974 as part of the huge expansion of universities then taking place across Canada. It was created by amalgamating Sir George Williams University, originally a YMCA night school for working adults in downtown Montreal, and Loyola, a Jesuit college some five miles away. Not an easy assignment. Although it has many excellent departments and programs — fine arts, computer science, and finance, for example — it is regarded as a second-rank university. For one thing, it hasn’t had the kind of leadership that, say, its next door neighbour, McGill, has had. (At the time of the murders, Concordia’s chief executive officer — its rector — was Patrick Kenniff, a former law professor and Quebec civil servant.) In fairness to Concordia, it doesn’t have McGill’s 170 year history and substantial endowment funds. Indeed, money has been scarce.
But it does have an engineering faculty and engineering faculties are good at bringing in research money. The engineering faculty at Concordia had been particularly entrepreneurial, raising almost half of the university’s research dollars. That gave it considerable clout within Concordia. Presiding over the engineering faculty and computer-science faculty for a period of sixteen years until the spring of 1993 was Dean Srikanta Swamy, an electrical engineer who had done his undergraduate work in India and his graduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan. His faculty consisted of five departments: building studies, computer science, and civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering.
In late 1979, Valery Fabrikant, a small, awkward-looking, thirty-nine year old scientist, arrived at the office of T.S. (Tom) Sankar, the chair of the mechanical engineering department, looking for work. Sankar, a specialist in solid mechanics, had done his BEng at the University of Madras and his doctorate at the University of Waterloo. Fabrikant said he was a dissident who had recently fled the Soviet Union where he’d been an associate professor; he had a Ph.D., was a former student of a distinguished scientist whose work Sankar knew and admired, and he had published a number of scientific papers. Sankar was impressed and offered him a job as a research assistant at a salary of $7,000 a year. He didn’t check Fabrikant’s credentials or references.
It didn’t take long for it to become clear that Fabrikant looked out for himself with a fierce sense of his own importance. When the Soviet Union was slow sending him a few thousand dollars he’d inherited from his father, he wrote External Affairs demanding that Canada suspend grain shipments to the U.S.S.R. until he received his money. It also became clear that Fabrikant had no wish to be a research assistant, helping his supervisor with his work. In fact, he was dismissive of Sankar’s research. Fabrikant had research of his own to get on with, theoretical work related to mechanical elasticity, the study of how materials react to stress. Sankar let him have his way.
Research in the world of engineering is usually collaborative. But Fabrikant’s field was narrow, on the cusp between engineering and mathematics. In any case, collaborating with him was difficult. He was by nature a loner and his colleagues learned to keep their distance. Some of them found him unpleasant, others a know-it-all. He had run-ins with Concordia’s computer lab, insisting that his work was more important than anyone else’s.
By 1981, he’d begun applying for jobs at other universities, including a job at the University of Calgary he wasn’t qualified for. When he learned he hadn’t been short-listed, he attended a conference at which he first harassed and then attempted publicly to humiliate the professor who’d signed the hiring committee’s rejection letter. The story quickly got back to Concordia. Sankar also received complaints from editors of journals about Fabrikant’s rudeness when, in the course of normal editorial practice, they criticized or asked questions about work he’d submitted.
But Sankar turned a blind eye to Fabrikant’s behaviour. He was not alone among academics at Concordia — and elsewhere — who believed that academic freedom meant not just freedom of speech but tolerance of eccentricity. His feeling was that only things that could be quantified should be taken into account in assessing a faculty member’s performance. And the truth of the matter was that, in a world whose hard currency is the number of scientific papers produced, Fabrikant was gratifyingly prolific, the equivalent of a sixty-goal-a-year scorer in hockey.
The number of papers an academic publishes is an important factor in obtaining grants, salary increases, promotions and tenure. The average professor in the world of engineering is doing well if he or she produces two or three original papers a year. Fabrikant was producing more than twice that number — twenty-five in under four years. And on almost all of them, Tom Sankar, his chair and protector, was listed as a co-author.
Co-authorship is like getting an assist in hockey — except in hockey, an impartial scorer decides who, if anyone, merits an assist. In the world of engineering, the rules are much less well-defined, and Fabrikant quickly realized that in Concordia’s engineering faculty co-authorship was routinely used as a way to curry and repay favours.
Fabrikant’s stipend came from the department’s so-called soft funds — research grants — and he was pushed ahead rapidly. By 1980 he’d been made a “research associate,” an invented rank, at $12,000 a year, and two years later, a “research assistant professor” at $23,250. Although he was not on the university payroll, he was already doing some teaching. That year, 1982, he decided it was time to marry and through friends in Brooklyn, found a young Slavic bride, Maya Tyker.
In 1983, Sankar proposed that Fabrikant’s status and title be upgraded yet again — to research associate professor. John Daniel, as vice-rector academic the person ultimately responsible for approving all appointments, had serious reservations about Fabrikant. Earlier that year, for example, Fabrikant had enrolled in a non-credit French class at the university, taught by a part-time instructor. He complained, not unreasonably, but extremely rudely, that the teacher smoked in class, and then went on to attack her in other ways — he didn’t like the way she spoke French; he didn’t like her teaching style. Fabrikant became so disruptive that the instructor threatened to resign. The teacher’s supervisor told Fabrikant he was no longer welcome in the class and sent him a note to that effect. But Fabrikant attended the next class anyway, read the supervisor’s note aloud, tore it up, and stayed. A more senior official ordered Fabrikant to stay away. He did so but demanded that the university give him $1000 to take French classes elsewhere. Sankar went to bat for him. It took Concordia months to say no.
Sankar was incensed that Daniel should cavil about Fabrikant’s behaviour and wrote him stiffly, saying, “I was always under the impression that we took decisions on promotions, reappointments and salary… increases purely on the basis of scholarly achievements and academic excellence rather than on the individual’s behaviour…. I hope my understanding is still valid.” He drew attention to Fabrikant’s publication record, describing ten of his papers as “truly outstanding” and hinted at “a major breakthrough” in the offing. Daniel backed down.
In 1985, Actions Structurantes, a new provincial programme to fund centres of research and teaching in Quebec universities, provided the mechanical-engineering department with money to create the Concordia Computer-Aided Vehicle Engineering Centre (CONCAVE), which would work closely with the transportation industry in the application of new technology. Sheshadri Sankar, Tom’s brother, was made the director and Fabrikant was one of three research associate professors hired. The appointments would be reviewed in three years, after which the appointees could be renewed for another two years. If after five years, CONCAVE demonstrated its worth, the Quebec government would provide Concordia with the money to create three new permanent faculty positions. Fabrikant was given space in the CONCAVE building some distance from the mechanical-engineering department. Everyone seemed to prefer it that way. His salary was now $30,000.
The job at CONCAVE meant that for the first time since he’d arrived in Canada, Fabrikant felt reasonably secure in his employment and he decided he was no longer going to put others’ names on his work unless they’d actually made a scientific contribution to it. From that time on, most of his papers contained one name — his own.
In January, 1987, Tom Sankar quietly stepped down as chair of the mechanical-engineering department. It was decided, Patrick Kenniff, the rector, told me, that Sankar “should not occupy a position that involved management of money.” Sankar, who admits only that there were bookkeeping “discrepancies,” stayed on as a professor.
In 1988, when Fabrikant’s CONCAVE appointment came up for review, Sheshadri Sankar told him that his contract was going to be renewed for just one more year and would then be terminated. Fabrikant was thunderstruck. He had been at Concordia for eight years. He was forty-eight years old, had a young wife, two small children, and no job prospects.
Fabrikant was convinced the reason he was going to be let go was that he’d stopped putting colleagues’ names on his papers. To prove his suspicion, he began provoking and secretly taping conversations with some of colleagues. In March 1988, for instance, he secretly taped a conversation with a colleague, Suong Van Hoa, reminding him that the two of them had collaborated on papers with Tom Sankar. “Would you agree that T.S.’s contribution was zero?” he asked. When Hoa replied that he couldn’t say that, Fabrikant asked him to describe Sankar’s contribution. “He paid you,” responded Hoa. “This is exactly what I’m saying,” replied Fabrikant. “He paid me and that was… his contribution…. The only reason I am being fired [is] that I did not include Sheshadri in any of my papers.” He threatened to take the matter to court.
Later that spring, he refused to pay for a laser printer he’d ordered through Concordia; he wanted better terms than those he’d agreed to. Angry memos went back and forth between Fabrikant and Mike Stefano, Concordia’s purchasing manager. At one point, an exasperated Stefano wrote Sam Osman, the new chair of the mechanical-engineering department, complaining, “This is not the first problem I’ve had with Dr. Fabrikant, who seems determined to see the inside of a courtroom.” Fabrikant shot back: “I believe you are aware of the Pentagon scandal brewing in Washington. I am not interested in starting a similar scandal in our University, but if the harassment does not stop, I shall have… to go public.” He told Stefano he would pay for the printer if Osman told him to. He then told Osman he’d pay if the rector told him to. One of the university’s three vice-rectors stepped in and worked out a compromise that using the university’s resources gave Fabrikant much of what he wanted.
That same spring, he taped a conversation with his former chair, Tom Sankar. Fabrikant asked Sankar what scientific contribution he’d made to a paper entitled “On the Method of Fabrikant, Sankar and Swamy.” (What follows is based on a transcript made by Fabrikant.) “I don’t know,” said Sankar, “some of these things we discussed.” “Discussion,” replied Fabrikant, “is not a contribution. Contribution is contribution.” He asked Sankar whether he would agree that he’d made no scientific contribution whatever to the thirty-four papers to which Fabrikant had added his name. “Did I… ask you to put my name on any of your papers? … You did it voluntarily,” said Sankar.
Fabrikant claims he then went to Dean Swamy and told him he would go public if Swamy didn’t “fix” things. Swamy denies that such a conversation took place. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that almost overnight, Sheshadri Sankar reversed himself and offered Fabrikant a two-year CONCAVE contract. Fabrikant had no doubt that his threats had worked. It was time to go after bigger game — real job security. Tenure.
So he started talking about guns. In January 1989, in the course of scouting the possibility of a transfer to another department with Catherine MacKenzie, executive assistant to the rector, he said he realized the only way to get what you want in North America is to buy a gun and shoot a lot of people. His comments frightened her and she reported them to Grendon Haines, the university’s conflict-resolution specialist. Haines had no actual powers, but he spoke to Fabrikant several times over the next couple of months. Fabrikant led him to believe that he already had a gun — he didn’t — and boasted that he planned to shoot Swamy, the Sankars, and others. He even talked about taking the rector, Patrick Kenniff, hostage. Haines had never heard anyone talk the way Fabrikant did, and was alarmed. He reported back to MacKenzie who for a time had Fabrikant followed and security guards watching the homes of Kenniff and Dean Swamy. Haines says he told Kenniff about the threats and the surveillance. Kenniff denies he knew about them until Fabrikant’s trial.
MacKenzie and Haines consulted two psychiatrists. One said he thought a man such as they described was potentially dangerous and could become violent. The second psychiatrist, Warren Steiner, a frequent consultant to the university, said such a man’s aggressive anti-social behaviour revealed a personality disorder. He needed to be told firmly, in writing, what the university’s limits were and that his threats and blackmail would no longer be tolerated. Steiner advised them to tell the man to get help. Because no one was keeping an accurate record of what was going on, it’s not clear what happened next. What is clear is that no one sent Fabrikant any such letter.
Early that fall, Rose Sheinin had become Concordia’s vice-rector academic. Sheinin had been a distinguished cancer researcher at the University of Toronto but she had little experience in administration at this level. Still, it didn’t take her long to notice that the orderly pyramid she was used to at the University of Toronto didn’t exist at Concordia and she said so — loudly and repeatedly — something that didn’t endear her to her new colleagues. She was accused of being a U. of T. snob.
In December, 1989, Fabrikant, whose salary had now risen to $54,340, began inquiring about the three new tenure-track positions that would become available if Actions Structurantes evaluated CONCAVE’s programme favourably. Nine times out of ten, a tenure track position guarantees subsequent tenure. He visited Sam Osman, his chair, and begged him for one of the jobs. He’d already sent out 700 applications for other positions, he said. If he didn’t get one of the new jobs, he might have to solve things “the American way.” He gestured as if firing a gun. Osman was used to his grandiloquence by now — most people in the faculty were — and didn’t take the threat seriously. He promised to help Fabrikant get one of the jobs.
In January 1990, Grendon Haines reported to Sheinin that Fabrikant had asked him to tell her that if she didn’t do what he wanted, she’d get the same kind of treatment others had had. That was the first she’d heard of Fabrikant. She immediately informed Security of the threat but took no other action.
In February, the mechanical-engineering department personnel committee tried — unsuccessfully this time — to promote Fabrikant from the rank of “research associate professor” to “research professor.” The dossier supporting the recommendation for promotion contained favourable student evaluations of Fabrikant’s courses; a number of his publications, including his first book, which had recently been published; evidence that he’d been successful in obtaining grants and supervising graduate students; and letters of support Osman had solicited from recognized experts in Fabrikant’s field. One described him as being among “the top ten international researchers in [his] area.” Another said, “The scope of his research is astounding…. His solutions are both simple and remarkably accurate.” The engineering faculty’s personnel committee unanimously approved the departmental recommendation. They had no reason not to. But the administration, in the person of Sheinin, turned it down on the ground that there was no such formal rank.
In the spring of 1990, Actions Structurantes gave the go-ahead for the three new tenure-track positions. In September, Osman recommended that Fabrikant be given one of them. He noted Fabrikant’s impressive research record and his favourable student evaluations. Sheshadri Sankar said he would support the appointment with the understanding that Fabrikant’s research would be in a field relevant to CONCAVE. The departmental personnel committee approved the recommendation.
Although everything Fabrikant wanted was within his grasp, he was nonetheless terrified that he might be denied again. It was at this point that he tried — unsuccessfully — to get a gun permit. He began calling Rose Sheinin’s office, making veiled threats to her staff. When she came home one night, she found a message on her answering machine from Fabrikant, saying, “You know who I am and you know what is going to happen.”
The ante had clearly been raised. Sheinin was already concerned enough about Fabrikant to have been doing some homework. In August, she had consulted Concordia’s legal counsel about the procedures involved in dismissing someone who did not yet have tenure. She was informed that a written record of complaints, warnings and discussions with the employee needed be kept on file. The disciplinary procedures set out in Concordia’s collective agreement, Sheinin was told, meant the university could dismiss an employee after two written warnings. She was also told that Concordia could not exercise its normal right to discipline people if its criteria for imposing discipline weren’t clear, or hadn’t been communicated to its employees. The same thing was true if the university overlooked rule violations, or permitted a course of misconduct to continue. By not taking action in the case of Fabrikant, the legal counsel wrote, the university could be seen to have “tacitly tolerated [his] disruptive behaviour.” The disciplinary procedures set out in Concordia’s collective agreement, Sheinin was told, meant the university could dismiss an employee after two written warnings. She assumed that all it would take was two letters from her.
Sheinin had also met with Warren Steiner, the consultant psychiatrist. He told her what he’d told MacKenzie and Haines. Fabrikant had a personality disorder; he needed clear boundaries. No one at Concordia had ever told him, “You can’t behave this way.” Sheinin asked whether Fabrikant’s behaviour would change. Why should it? Steiner replied. It works. Was it possible someone like Fabrikant could become violent, Sheinin asked. Unlikely said Steiner.
She responded to Fabrikant’s most recent threats with a strongly-worded letter: “… the frequency of [your] telephone calls, the tone which you use, your warnings that you intend to tape record… conversations, etc. are totally unacceptable. The veiled threats conveyed through my staff and through Grendon Haines must stop immediately [or] I will be left with no alternative than to seek protection through the University’s policies concerning discipline.” This was the first time anyone at Concordia had dealt with Fabrikant so firmly. And in writing. Fabrikant apologized to Sheinin through Grendon Haines, saying he regretted his dysfunctional behaviour.
Sheinin then met with senior members of the mechanical-engineering department and attempted to persuade them to reverse their recommendation; she wanted them to document Fabrikant’s abusive behaviour. They demurred. She had the impression his unpredictability spooked them. And Sheinin’s poking her nose into the almost-all-male world of engineering irritated them. No woman, even if she was the vice-rector academic, was going to tell them what to do. Fabrikant’s behaviour shouldn’t be a factor in getting a tenure-track job, they said. Osman insisted that giving Fabrikant what he wanted would “bring out the best in him,” and he made it clear that if Sheinin attempted to overturn the department’s recommendation, he would make use of the university’s grievance procedures to oppose her.
On November 16, 1990, Sheinin sent a memo to the rector, Patrick Kenniff, reporting on her meeting with the departmental members. “All members of faculty were adamant that Dr. Fabrikant was an asset,” she wrote Kenniff, but “none of them wanted to work with or near him.” She herself was convinced, she said, that “whatever problems we have been presented with by Dr. Fabrikant will continue…. My gut feelings tell me that he should not be taken onto the full-time faculty.” Nonetheless, she wrote, she wasn’t prepared to take on the mechanical-engineering department.
Before becoming rector in 1984, Kenniff had been a deputy minister in the Quebec government. Hired by Concordia’s Board of Governors because he was well-connected and would help the university’s profile, he was seen and heard in all the right places. But he did not run a particularly tight or happy ship. Though he seemed to be off campus more than he was on, he had trouble delegating authority. His first vice-rector academic, Francis Whyte, quit the university in frustration before the end of his term.
If Sheinin was hoping for support from Kenniff, she didn’t get it. So she settled for telling the department that if it hired Fabrikant, he was their problem. She added a rider to Fabrikant’s contract. He would have to wait three years before he could be considered for tenure. His new contract would run for two years, until June, 1992 at $59,677 a year; the possibility of extension would come up for review in the fall of 1991.
In the spring of 1991, the department personnel committee awarded Fabrikant a merit increase, the highest of anyone in the department, in recognition of the excellence of his work as a teacher and researcher. He responded by making fresh demands: he asked Osman for a four-month paid leave to accept a $4,500-a-month fellowship in France. The request was denied on the grounds that it contravened university policy. He couldn’t be paid twice, but he could, if he wished, take a leave of absence. In July, he informed Sheshadri Sankar that he’d been awarded a $10,000 grant by NASA, which could eventually lead to a much larger grant. He wanted to drop all his work for CONCAVE to devote his time to his new project, this despite his contractual agreement to do research relevant to CONCAVE. In early October, he asked Osman for permission to use a $7,000 research grant he’d received from the internal granting system to purchase a release from his teaching responsibilities given the demands of his research work. This, in the circumstances, was outrageous. Osman called Fabrikant to say his request violated both university and federal regulations. Research funds had to be used for research. “Are you trying to scare me?” Fabrikant replied. “I am not scared. I wrote a letter and I want a written reply.”
Fabrikant’s petty insolence cost him a major ally — only weeks away from having his appointment reviewed. Osman wrote a stiff note informing him that what he was proposing was in fact illegal and upped the ante by requesting a detailed report on his future teaching goals. Fabrikant responded, saying he’d been told that Tom Sankar had once bought a release from teaching, and demanded an apology. He reminded Osman of the merit award he’d recently been given and went on to say that he planned to be on sabbatical the following year. (The university didn’t believe he was entitled to one.) Osman went through Fabrikant’s file and found minor discrepancies in his résumés. He asked Fabrikant for proof of his academic qualifications. Fabrikant responded with contempt. “How can a scientist like you ask a scientist like me for proof of my credentials?”
On October 25, sixteen senior members of the mechanical-engineering department met to discuss Fabrikant and passed a motion calling on both the department and the university to take action against him. They were troubled: Fabrikant was now turning his aggression on the department’s chair and former chair. A few days later the departmental personnel committee met to debate whether it was proper to consider Fabrikant’s behaviour in reviewing the extension of his contract. During one meeting, they found him outside the room, accused him of spying on them, and called Security. Fabrikant was escorted from the building. In the early hours of October 31, they decideded not to renew Fabrikant’s contract. Their written recommendation was devoted entirely to what they’d previously insisted was irrelevant. They cited his abusiveness, his attempts to evade his teaching responsibilities — and a new concern, his failure to supervise more graduate students.
On November 1, members of the committee requested an urgent meeting with members of the university’s informal intervention team, saying they were afraid Fabrikant would become violent when he learned of their decision. They wanted him followed, or better still, suspended, under emergency measures contained in the collective agreement. But the intervention team had no such power to act. And the committee wouldn’t substantiate its fears. Members of the intervention team say that they subsequently met with the rector’s new executive assistant, Maureen Habib, and told her they thought something serious was going on, though they weren’t sure what. They thought Concordia should bring in someone from outside to investigate. But the intervention team didn’t put its recommendation in writing. And Habib says she doesn’t remember any such meeting.
That same day, Fabrikant arrived at a university senate meeting ostentatiously carrying a large artist’s portfolio. Catherine MacKenzie, now an associate vice-rector responsible, among other things, for security, quickly assumed there was a gun in the portfolio. She remembered what he’d told her about solving things the American way. She’d also attended part of the intervention team meeting. MacKenzie called Concordia’s security force and had them summon the Montreal police. She then sat beside Fabrikant while he followed the proceedings with theatrical attentiveness. When the meeting ended, the police searched him. There was no gun.
The departmental personnel committee’s recommendation that Fabrikant not be renewed included a declaration of its new-found belief that the competence of a professor included not only his or her “capacity to teach and carry out research activities, it also has bearing on his (her) ethical and moral conduct. … The lack of these qualities, especially if they interfere with the performance of other members of the university… cannot be tolerated…. Many persons inside and outside the university,” they wrote, but without giving specifics, “have been subjected to harassment, threats, blackmail and allegations by Dr. Fabrikant.”
Fabrikant wrote Dean Swamy pointing out that just seven months earlier the same members of the same committee had awarded him the highest merit increase of anyone in the department. How could things have changed so much? Poor behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated, he said, and dared anyone who thought his behaviour was detrimental to file a complaint.
Every large organization has an institutional memory. Files of one kind or another allow one to chart the sequence of events, the decision-making process, and the accumulation of behaviours; they provide a “paper trail.” At universities, a faculty member’s “official” — i.e. most complete — file is maintained in the dean’s office. All relevant matters pertaining to that faculty member are contained there. In the case of Fabrikant, even if no one had bothered lodging complaints about each particular threat or disruption, one might reasonably expect to find a pattern: documentation of the French class episode; his quarrel with the purchasing department; the fact that Security had been asked to follow him; and the stern letter from Sheinin. They simply weren’t there. And the contents of his official file should have been available to the Faculty Personnel Committee. As for his departmental dossier, Osman later admitted to editing out unfavourable material — a poor course evaluation, for example — to help Fabrikant gain advancement.
In late November, the faculty personnel committee, who’d been reading favourable reports about Fabrikant for years, suddenly found themselves confronted with a litany of vague complaints about him and a recommendation that he not be renewed. The committee was understandably bewildered, and in the absence of hard evidence, voted unanimously to overrule the mechanical-engineering department. The meeting was chaired by Dean Swamy. The committee gave Fabrikant a one-year renewal subject to four conditions. He was to teach advanced courses in mechanical engineering, take on more graduate students, and conform to the research goals of the department and to its curriculum development.
With his own chair and department turning against him, Fabrikant’s moods and behaviour began swinging more and more wildly. In early February 1992, he escalated things yet again, this time by resorting to electronic mail; he began transmitting memos and correspondence within Concordia itself, complaining that the faculty association wasn’t supporting him in his fight with the university. When Sheinin informed him that he was misusing the university’s communications system, Fabrikant replied that there was no rule saying he couldn’t use it. He expanded his e-mail campaign, to include all his grievances and charges, and began deluging mystified academics everywhere. Among the dozens of supporting documents he sent out were transcripts of the conversations he’d taped, but he now added allegations of financial fraud and conflict of interest on the part of his colleagues. “I am no longer afraid of anything or anybody,” his e-mail declared. “We all have to die one day. Whenever I die, I shall die an honest person…. I cannot fight all the crooks in the world, but I shall not rest until the bogus scientists in this university are exposed” Fabrikant again dared people at Concordia to sue him.
He wrote to members of Concordia’s Board of Governors, charging Sheshadri Sankar with misappropriation of authorship and being in a conflict of interest with respect to a research contract between Transport Canada and CONCAVE. “Rector knows about this,” he stated flatly, “but prefers to cover it up.” Rose Sheinin was asked by the Board of Governors to investigate the allegations and several weeks later, she presented a cautiously-worded report to the Board stating that the “activities of all Concordia faculty members involved in the project were and are, as far as I can determine, entirely correct and within the current ethos” — i.e. conform to the way things are normally done at Concordia. She dismissed the misappropriation-of-authorship question.
But Sheinin had been expressing concern about the “ethos” at Concordia since her arrival. And one of the things that had concerned her was the lack of a policy regarding the proper handling of research and contract funds. Her investigation could only have been cursory, considering its incompleteness and the remarkably short time it took. Fabrikant accused Sheinin of a coverup. “You found no evidence to support my allegations [against Sheshadri Sankar] because you did not want to find the evidence.” He criticized her for not having contacted him during her investigation and sent her additional material to corroborate his charges. She dismissed the evidence, saying it contained nothing new.
In March, Maureen Habib, the executive assistant to the rector, consulted yet another expert on how to deal with Fabrikant. On the basis of Habib’s description, Frema Engel, a specialist in violence and trauma in the workplace, wrote her, “I would suggest there is reason to be concerned and I would take [this person’s] behaviour very seriously…. The worst case scenario is that he would act out his anger, become violent and either harm a member or members of the university or himself.” Habib claims she sent a copy of Engel’s letter to Sheinin. Sheinin says she didn’t receive it. In the meantime, unknown to the university, Fabrikant had completed a course in handguns, obtained a permit, and had bought a pistol — for target practice, he said.
In late March, Sheinin sent Fabrikant what was intended as a formal letter of warning, saying, “you have made very serious allegations against members of the University community, thereby causing significant disturbance therein…. You shall … immediately cease and desist from making these types of unsubstantiated allegations by any means.” Fabrikant rejected her letter — using e-mail — on the grounds that she hadn’t followed due process: the collective agreement, at least as interpreted by the faculty association, required her letter to be accompanied by a complaint from Fabrikant’s dean. Sheinin got one and sent her letter of warning again.
Fabrikant was now beginning to get media coverage. The Montreal Gazette quoted him as saying that he’d been in Canada for twelve years and had yet to meet an honest Canadian. The publicity raised the decibel level of academic gossip, and also prompted one deeply troubling report. A woman called Sheinin’s office to say that, as a student in 1982, the year of Fabrikant’s marriage, she’d been raped by Fabrikant. She gave details: she’d reported it to Concordia’s ombudsman and then, because she was having emotional problems and was afraid of Fabrikant, had left the university without pursuing the matter. The ombudsman verified that the woman had approached her. But when Sheinin’s office tried to persuade the woman to go on record, she was reluctant; she only wanted to warn them that Fabrikant could be physically violent. Then she suffered a brain embolism and died — just before Fabrikant’s trial ended.
On April 4, Fabrikant wrote Tom Sankar, “You are listed as co-author [of 35] publications of mine though your scientific contribution to them was zero…. I hereby request that you write … letters of retraction [acknowledging] that you did not make any scientific contribution to those publications…. Failure to do so will result in a legal action against you.” He wrote Swamy a similar letter, listing two publications. Shortly thereafter, he launched a lawsuit against the two men.
When student grades were released that spring, Sam Osman, the department chair, heard complaints from students in sections of the course taught by other professors. They claimed the grades Fabrikant’s students had received were suspiciously high. Osman invited a professor in mechanical engineering from another university to review Fabrikant’s exam papers. He reported back that not only had Fabrikant marked wrong answers right, but he had bumped his students grades up by from twelve to twenty per cent.
In June, the mechanical engineering department increased its pressure on Fabrikant. For 1992-1993 he was required to teach four courses, three of which — two computer design courses and a graduate course — he’d never taught before. The graduate course was in his own field. But he wasn’t qualified to teach the computer design courses. He knew that and so did his chair. Fabrikant begged Osman to reassign him; Osman refused on the grounds that everyone in the department should be able to teach such a course.
On June 23, Fabrikant raised the stakes again. He turned up in the office of Elizabeth Horwood, Osman’s secretary, demanding that she sign an application for permission not just to own but to carry a handgun. His request was clearly meant, and heard, as a threat. Horwood refused and immediately reported what had happened to the administration. Many secretaries at the university — on the front line when it came to dealing with him — were by now afraid of Fabrikant. Some had even had panic buttons installed.
When Rose Sheinin and Charles Bertrand, the vice-rector in charge of services, including Security, learned that Fabrikant was trying to obtain a permit to carry a gun, they called a meeting attended by Bertrand, one of Concordia’s lawyers, Sheinin’s assistant, and Maureen Habib. Following the meeting, Bertrand and Sheinin sent an urgent memo to Kenniff recommending that Fabrikant be suspended, with pay, immediately. “In our opinion,” they wrote, “[he] presents an immediate and continuing threat to members of the University community…. We suggest that he be suspended indefinitely and that he be forbidden to enter any University buildings until such time that the suspension is lifted. As a condition for reinstatement in the University, Dr. Fabrikant must be required to produce a statement from a psychiatrist (chosen by the University) attesting to his mental stability.” They enclosed a draft of a letter Kenniff could send to Fabrikant: “Your behaviour in recent months,” it read, “has been one of harassment and intimidation. You have made veiled threats to various members of the University community and have instilled an atmosphere of apprehension and fear within the University…. It [is] in this context that you asked for a reference form to be completed … for a carrying permit for a gun. I have been notified that you are already in possession of a firearm…. I consider you to pose an immediate and continuing threat to the University and hereby suspend you with pay effective immediately.”
Kenniff, the only person at Concordia with the emergency power to suspend Fabrikant, refused. He didn’t have enough evidence, he said. Not only did Kenniff refuse to suspend Fabrikant, says Bertrand, who delivered the memo, he didn’t propose an alternative course of action. Not so, says the rector. Among other things, he urged Bertrand to tell the Sûreté du Québec not to grant Fabrikant’s request for a permit to carry a gun. Kenniff complains that having asked him to suspend Fabrikant, the two vice-rectors immediately went off on holiday. Sheinin and Bertrand deny that. If nothing else, the differing accounts of what happened make it clear how much at odds Kenniff was with his most senior administrators.
Members of the administration began exploring other ways to get rid of Fabrikant. In early July, the associate vice-rector of institutional relations and finance began talking to him about early retirement. (Fabrikant was just fifty-two.) The first offer was two years’ salary. Fabrikant asked for ten. The university raised its offer to three; Fabrikant asked for thirteen. At that point, the university ended the negotiations.
In an e-mail message dated July 19, Fabrikant described the procedural battle that had continued to be waged between his lawyer and the lawyer representing Swamy and Tom Sankar regarding his suit against them. He suggested that judges of the Quebec Supreme Court had been giving him a hard time because the chief justice, Alan Gold, was the chancellor of Concordia. “Is the Chief Justice (or should I say, Chief Injustice) Gold sending me a message that there is no way I can get justice in his court?” Swamy’s and Sankar’s lawyer pounced on Fabrikant’s statement and argued that he was in contempt of court.
By mid-August, Fabrikant was becoming increasingly agitated. He had, in fact, been charged with contempt, a charge that would be heard on August 25. On August 16, he sent Kenniff a note by e-mail, saying, “As you know, Dean Swamy has assigned me to teach… two courses which are outside my field of expertise…. You do not hesitate to jeopardize the quality of student education in your attempts to damage my reputation as a teacher…. I shall not allow you to take students hostage. Please be advised that if you do not fix the situation by noon tomorrow… an extraordinary legal action will be undertaken…. Do govern yourself accordingly.” Two days later, Fabrikant presented the university with a home-made injunction that stated, “WHEREAS I am a world-class scientist… on the verge of an important scientific discovery… [and] have been assigned to teach… two courses… outside my field of expertise… [and] WHEREAS [the university] has offered me… three… years salary… on… condition that I [resign] and promise not to sue, [it’s clear that] the University does not need me to teach this term….” Therefore, declared his injunction, the court should order Concordia to grant him a sabbatical.
On August 19, Fabrikant received his second formal letter of warning from Sheinin about his continuing e-mail allegations. On Friday, August 21, with his contempt hearing due on Tuesday, Fabrikant transmitted an e-mail message, stating, “… very soon I might be in jail for contempt of court. I have dared to say publicly that the court is lawless and corrupt. If you hear that I have committed suicide in jail or was a victim of an accident, do not believe [it].” Also on Friday, Richard Beaulieu, external legal counsel to the university, sent Fabrikant a letter warning him that his job was in jeopardy. It’s not clear whether Fabrikant actually saw the letter. That afternoon, according to the Montreal Gazette, Maya Tyker, Fabrikant’s wife, picked up two guns she’d ordered from a catalogue — for use at her shooting club, she said. When she got home, she gave them to her husband for safekeeping.
Around 2:30 p.m. on Monday, August 24, Fabrikant walked onto the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall Building, where the engineering faculty is housed. Fabrikant was carrying a briefcase that contained three handguns and many rounds of ammunition. First he went looking for Swamy and Osman. Neither was in. He headed to his own tiny office where he was scheduled to meet Michael Hogben, the president of the Concordia faculty association (CUFA). Hogben attempted to give Fabrikant a letter setting out the conditions under which he would be allowed to visit the CUFA offices. His access had to be limited, the letter informed him, because his behaviour was causing those who worked there “considerable distress.” (Video surveillance equipment had already been installed by CUFA as a result of Fabrikant’s harassment of its staff.) Fabrikant took out his.38 calibre pistol and shot Hogben three times. Hogben fell to the floor and bled to death, clutching his letter. A faculty colleague, Jaan Saber, called out from his office across the way. Fabrikant crossed the hall and fired two shots into Saber, who died in hospital the next day. Back in the corridor, heading towards Osman’s office again, he fired at a fleeing Elizabeth Horwood, wounding her in the thigh. He then worked his way through the maze of ninth floor corridors to the other side of the building and into the office of Phoivos Ziogas, chair of the electrical and computer-engineering department, who was in conversation with Otto Schwelb, another colleague. Fabrikant shot Ziogas twice; he died in hospital a month later. In a scuffle with Schwelb, Fabrikant lost his pistol. Schwelb, unaware that Fabrikant had two other guns in his briefcase, went back to tend to Ziogas. Matthew Douglass, a professor of civil engineering who was known to be close to Swamy, tried to reason with Fabrikant, who had headed back to the dean’s offices. He was shot four times and died almost instantly. (None of the three engineering professors murdered by Fabrikant had been a significant player in the drama.) Fabrikant now took a security guard and a professor hostage, locked himself in an office with them and informed a 911 operator that he had just “made several murders” and wanted to talk to a TV reporter. He stayed on the line for an hour. When he put his gun down to adjust the phone, the professor kicked it away and the security guard overpowered him.
Patrick Kenniff told the media there was nothing the university could have done to prevent what happened. Seventeen days after the shootings, he fired Fabrikant: “Events before, on, and subsequent to August 24,1992,” he wrote, “demonstrate clearly that you constitute an immediate and continuing threat to this university, its faculty, staff and students…. Furthermore,” Kenniff added sensibly, if unhelpfully, “you are no longer accomplishing your duties as a faculty member.”
The Link, a student paper, didn’t buy the university’s — and the media’s — portrayal of Fabrikant “as yet another isolated case of a madman on a murderous rampage.” “The perpetrator of the August 24 killings,” wrote Heidi Modro, “didn’t live in a social vacuum. Many people saw what was happening and didn’t react, hoping that the problem would simply go away. But it didn’t…. What we need right now is not a bunch of Health Service employees roving the hallways asking us how we ‘feel.’ We need answers.”
There were attempts in several quarters to supply them. A team from the Montreal Gazette burrowed into Fabrikant’s background in the Soviet Union. They found — as Tom Sankar or Sam Osman would have if they’d gone looking — that Fabrikant’s academic credentials were substantially as he’d stated them. The arresting discovery was that he’d emigrated not as a political dissident but because he’d been fired from a succession of posts for his threatening and disruptive behaviour.
Then, searching out contrary angles for a special issue on Canadian universities, Maclean’s magazine investigated Fabrikant’s charges that Tom Sankar and Srikanta Swamy had made no contribution to numerous papers on which they were listed as co-authors. The magazine interviewed deans of engineering at other universities about the productivity of professors of engineering who become administrators. It declined sharply, they all reported. McGill’s dean told Maclean’s he now produced one or two new papers a year. The same was true of Harvard’s dean. By contrast, Swamy’s production had doubled from seven papers a year to fourteen or fifteen when he became dean. He’d produced twenty-six papers in 1982 alone.
Carl Goldman, a civil engineering professor at Concordia, was also quoted in Maclean’s and was outspoken in his criticism of his faculty colleagues. “Professors have become entrepreneurs of a sort,” he said. “They go to the government to get money for research, hire juniors to do the work and then put their names down on the papers. It is a practice that has corrupted the entire educational system across Canada, but Concordia engineering is probably the worst example you can find.”
Meanwhile, Concordia’s Board of Governors had initiated two independent inquiries: one under John Cowan, former vice-rector of the University of Ottawa, into the employment history of Valery Fabrikant; the other, under Harry Arthurs, former president of York University, into academic and scientific integrity at Concordia. The board seemed determined to make changes. In the spring of 1994, following a lengthy and contentious review of her appointment, the board voted not to reappoint Sheinin to a second term as vice-rector academic. Though she brought a fierce commitment to academic excellence and integrity to Concordia, there’s no doubt that she made serious mistakes, the board concluded. Soon after, the board removed Patrick Kenniff as rector, saying they’d lost confidence in his ability to lead. (He was given a lump-sum severance payment of $400,000 and a year’s salary — $180,000.) Not long before Kenniff’s removal, I’d seen him on the Canada AM television programme, promoting gun control. If Canada had had better gun control laws, he implied, the events of August 24, 1992, would never have happened. (Appropriately, Concordia’s new rector, Frederick Lowy, is a psychiatrist.)
It’s possible, as Kenniff and others at Concordia like to suggest, that Fabrikant’s murder spree was inevitable, and that had the university attempted to deal with him sooner, he would simply have pulled the trigger sooner. But, as the two independent inquiry reports make clear, there’s more than enough blame to go around. The Cowan Report describes a senior administration riddled with dissension and confusion. A cartoon published at the time the report came out refers to the university as Discordia U.
The Arthurs Report confirmed that there was misappropriation of authorship by Tom Sankar and Srikanta Swamy and that there were conflicts of interest in a number of Seshadri Sankar’s CONCAVE contracts. A forensic audit authorized by Sheinin and the new dean of engineering — Dean Swamy had been squeezed out of office by Sheinin in the spring of 1993 — revealed extensive financial irregularities on the part of all three men. The two Sankars denied any wrongdoing; they were acting in accordance with the prevailing ethos, they said. Swamy described himself as a “victim.” But all three men were forced to leave the university.
“Too often,” the Arthurs Report noted, “university honours, research grants and industrial contracts are awarded on the basis of numbers of publications, rather than on their quality and significance. Obviously, this does not mean that the work of all prolific scholars — including those at Concordia — is without significance or merit. We mean to suggest only that there are strong pressures to be prolific, that those pressures may in turn lead to the adoption of strategies for being as prolific as possible, and that some of these strategies may promote undesirable behaviour.”
“We have confirmed the validity of a number of Dr. Fabrikant’s more specific allegations,” the report conceded. But it went on to remind the reader that Fabrikant’s allegations were in no way motivated by concern for the public good. They were the “ultimate revenge” of a desperate man. “We take no pleasure in acknowledging that [this document] lends support to so malevolent a purpose and credibility to so unsavoury an individual,” the report concluded.
Fabrikant, it’s now clear, was surrounded not only by people who had a dubious sense of right and wrong but also by human frailty. He was in the employ of a flawed, fractious university, with a celebrity chief officer, hostile senior managers, an impotent campus-support apparatus, and academic colleagues who were often too apathetic or greedy or scared or dainty to blow the whistle. In a community that didn’t keep its head, the worst occurred.
Today, he sits in Montreal’s Donnacona Prison, accusing the authorities of persecuting him, and working on his research, assisted by a former graduate student who is convinced that Fabrikant is a misunderstood genius and who feels honoured to serve him in any way he can.
— Saturday Night, July/August 1994
— Lingua Franca, May/June, 1995