McMaster prof fired over ‘exploitative’ sexual relations with students: university

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press
McMaster prof fired over ‘exploitative’ sexual relations with students: university

A McMaster University professor, whose alleged pattern of sexual misconduct with multiple students involved behaviour the university called “unethical, inappropriate and in some instances 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 Hamilton university said.

The committee found Watter, an associate professor in the psychology department, had sexual relations with a number of students, including one who had suicidal thoughts and relied on him for support and another who he hired without disclosing the relationship.

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

“This process has been a long and challenging ordeal for all those involved,” read 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 lawyer said in a statement, and he 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 then later acquitted by a judge of the alleged 2017 sexual assault of a graduate student.

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

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

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

It also found he had sexual relations 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. He also used the website to flirt with an undergraduate student who he later invited to his office, though the two never met, the committee found.

Unlike Watter’s criminal trial, the hearings did not turn on the question of consent, though he maintains 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 dealt with power imbalance issues in the relationships, but the committee found it was more likely his attempts to reassure each student who expressed doubts were manipulative, a summary report said.

“Dr. Watter’s conduct was incompatible with the core values of the university and cannot be reconciled with how a faculty member should be reasonably expected and trusted to conduct themselves,” the report read.

The allegations that surfaced 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 into systemic issues in the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, with a report recommending better training and oversight.

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

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

“The decision is reflective of a process that seemed not about determining wrongdoing but about shifting blame onto Dr. Watter, to distract from the University’s handling of demonstrably false allegations against him and several others,” lawyer Warren Mouck said in a written statement.


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 residents of Quebec, 1 866 APPELLE (1-866-277-3553).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2024.

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