Fired instructor disputes college's claim he was a disruptive bully

College lawyer Clarence Bennett (left) and executive director Tim Marshall arrive at court Tuesday. The college argues Cumberland's bullying of students and disruptive behaviour led to his firing. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
College lawyer Clarence Bennett (left) and executive director Tim Marshall arrive at court Tuesday. The college argues Cumberland's bullying of students and disruptive behaviour led to his firing. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

A fired instructor pushed back on claims Tuesday morning that he was a difficult and disruptive employee in the months before he was fired from the Maritime College of Forest Technology.

In his second day of testimony in his lawsuit against the college, Rod Cumberland said he was concerned about changes at the college, including what he considered a softening of rules around student absenteeism and behaviour.

"I was trying to get some control back in my classroom, some kind of respect," he said, but new administrators were undermining him by undercutting and second-guessing his disciplining of students.

"I'd been thrown under a bus and run over."

Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick
Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick

Cumberland is suing the college for wrongful dismissal in Court of King's Bench, saying he was fired in June 2019 for publicly opposing the industrial spraying of glyphosate on public forests in New Brunswick.

He believes industry representatives on the college board pushed for his removal.

On Monday two former college directors testified that industry officials told them they could "get rid" of Cumberland or sanction him.

The college denies firing Cumberland over glyphosate and says it will show the firing was about bullying and disruptive behaviour.

The college's lawyer Clarence Bennett began laying out that case late Tuesday afternoon when he started cross-examining Cumberland.

He signaled he would aggressively challenge the instructor's version of events and paint a different picture of how he acted toward his students and colleagues.

"I'm going to suggest to you that Mr. Cumberland's reputation is a bit of a loaded issue," he told Chief Justice Tracey DeWare. "He has one -- and I'm going to suggest to you that he's earned it."

He challenged Cumberland's claim to being a scientific expert on glyphosate, noting he's had no peer-reviewed articles published on the topic in academic journals.

Bennett read one rejection letter that told Cumberland an article he submitted was "more like an advocacy piece and is not a scientifically rigorous review."

Cumberland's testimony began Tuesday morning with his account of how he became alarmed in the fall of 2018 when college director Tim Marshall and new academic chair Gareth Davies didn't seem willing to enforce long-standing rules about student behaviour.

That included a ban on drinking alcohol during a fall camp in Fundy National Park for students.

Cumberland said he wanted to punish students who had left the camp site to consume beer while watching a hockey game in the village of Alma.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

The students had been told the rules at the start of the year and again just before the camp, but Davies felt Cumberland and another instructor were being too strict and the students had done nothing wrong because they were "off-duty."

The incident undermined his authority with students and made it harder for him to enforce other rules, including a ban on wearing hats in class.

"They now think we're a joke," he recalled thinking.

Students knew administrators had second-guessed him and took advantage of it, becoming increasingly defiant, Cumberland said.

He said with no human resources department or union to turn to at the college, his only way to raise his concerns was with the administration.

When he pushed Marshall and Davies to clarify the changing rules and sought meetings with them to make his case, he got no response, he said.

"The only way you have to resolve stuff is to meet, and that was taken away," he said.

When Cumberland kept pushing for a discussion to clarify the rules, Davies wrote in an email that he found the instructor "offensive, disrespectful and insubordinate."

Cumberland said he feared he was being set up for dismissal.

"I felt like I was put right in a corner. I'm trying to do the best I can as a professional to deliver this course and they're not listening. It was extremely difficult, it was extremely embarrassing. I was totally frustrated. … I felt abused."

Cumberland also testified about a seminar on herbicides in January 2019 that is key to the lawsuit.

The college says in its lawsuit defence that Cumberland was "disrespectful and was openly dismissive, rude and insolent" toward federal scientists on a panel discussion about glyphosate.

His lawyer Paul Champ played a video of Cumberland's comments at the seminar where he can be heard asking the panel a question and a panelist can be heard responding.

In testimony, he described his questions as "challenging" but disagreed with a suggestion they were "combative."

Champ also had Cumberland read an email from the University of New Brunswick forestry dean Van Lantz thanking him for his contributions to the discussion.

Behaviour questioned

Cumberland said no one from his own college, including Marshall or Davies, said they were concerned with his actions at the seminar until a June 2019 meeting five months later where Marshall fired him.

"I said 'Are you sure this is what you want to do?'" he said of the meeting. "And he said 'Absolutely.'"

In cross-examination, Bennett brought up several examples of what he suggested was disrespectful behaviour by Cumberland toward students, such as when he used the terms "fruity" and "faggy" in class.

Cumberland said he didn't use the word "faggy" and his use of "fruity" was meant to mean "nutty" or "crazy."

When Bennett said a student was offended, Cumberland said the words weren't aimed at any individual.

"I did not realize that they would take it in that way," he said, adding he apologized to the offended student.

The instructor admitted under questioning by Bennett that comments he made in class about female students doing laundry "could be construed" as sexist.

Champ objected to several of the questions, calling Bennett's approach "trial by ambush." But DeWare said because the lawsuit was making broader claims than simple wrongful dismissal, Bennett had some latitude with his questioning.

Bennett's cross-examination of Cumberland is expected to continue Wednesday morning.