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Sexual misconduct on campus: Concordia students call for change of climate

Concordia student leaders say the university must do more to address sexual violence on campus.
Concordia student leaders say the university must do more to address sexual violence on campus. - Contributed

Concordia student leaders say the university must do more to address sexual violence on campus in the wake of the scandal in its creative writing program, and that recommendations from a recent “climate review” do not go far enough to protect students from predatory professors.

Concordia president Alan Shepard welcomed the report of an external climate review of the English department when it was released this month. The review notes that current students report significantly fewer negative experiences than alumni reported, he said.

Student leaders were less enthusiastic.

“I think (the climate) is unhealthy now,” said Meredith Marty-Dugas, president of the Concordia Association for Students in English and a student in creative writing and English. “There has been a breakdown of conversation between students and faculty and staff within the department that makes it very hard for students to bring forward concerns about the way they are being treated in classrooms. There is a lack of trust that has built up over time, and it has become more apparent in the last year.”

Sophie Hough-Martin, general co-ordinator of the Concordia Student Union, said the review confirmed what students in the department have been saying for years, but was vague in its recommendations on how to bring about true change.

“Students are concerned about what the steps will be moving forward, how the recommendations will actually be implemented and what level of student involvement there will be,” she said.

Both said it is dangerous to conclude from the climate review that things are now much better in the department. A higher number of incidents of sexual misconduct were indeed reported by former students than current students, but few current students participated in the review. Some may have been reluctant to call out the behaviour of professors, even anonymously, for fear of negative consequences, they said.

The climate review was the final step in a three-pronged response the university announced in January 2018, after a former student in Concordia’s creative writing program published an online essay alleging rampant abuse of power and sexual misconduct by players on the CanLit scene, and professors in the Concordia program in particular. Students, past and present, corroborated allegations of a sexually predatory environment, calling it an “open secret” fed by a whisper network that warned students about which professors to be wary of or avoid.

At the time, Shepard said he was unaware of the goings-on described in the essay, but he announced the university would strike a Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence, launch an external investigation into specific allegations, and commission a climate review of the English department. At least three professors were reportedly investigated, with two investigations completed, although the university says it is bound by law to keep the results of any disciplinary actions confidential, even from the complainants.

The climate review, by retired justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal Pierrette Rayle and two psychologists, was released March 8. Last spring and summer, the reviewers invited more than 3,000 students, alumni, faculty and staff members to participate in online surveys and in-person, phone and videoconference interviews about their experiences at the school. Among the 109 participants were 32 current students of the English department, 57 alumni, 17 faculty members and three staff members.

“The findings indicate that there were a small number of faculty members who have engaged in inappropriate and unacceptable conduct,” the reviewers wrote, adding that many respondents reported positive experiences at Concordia.

“Based on the survey results, respondents had the perception that the climate of the Department of English was unhealthy at the time of the review and that department culture and practices did not promote healthy relationships.”

The report made 13 recommendations, including that the university should prohibit professors from holding classes in bars, offer explicit guidelines regarding social gatherings and off-campus events attended by students and faculty, and train faculty members about what constitutes a romantic or sexual relationship (i.e. including a single date or sexual encounter). Training was also recommended to help faculty and staff members support students coming to them with complaints.

Shepard said the university administration intends to “work with the Standing Committee on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence and the Department of English to take the next steps in addressing the recommendations.”

The university has already taken many actions on the issue, notably updating its sexual violence policy to include rules that require intimate faculty-student relationships be disclosed to the administration as a conflict of interest. When a relationship is declared, all evaluative exercises by the professor of the student are suspended.

The climate review authors expressed disappointment that the provincial government chose not to prohibit such relationships outright when it enacted Bill 151 in 2017. The law required all post-secondary institutions to adopt anti-sexual violence policies by January 2019, including rules about intimate relationships between professors and students, to avoid situations that encourage abuse of power or sexual violence.

The report said favouritism and discrimination are particular dangers in a program like creative writing because faculty members, who often hold influential positions in the literary community, have the power to make or break careers.

Student leaders had hoped the report would go further — for example, encouraging Concordia to adopt rules to stop professors from routinely trying to date their students.

“They didn’t recommend consequences for professors who repeatedly proposition students,” said Marty-Dugas. “If they proposition a student and the student rejects them, they don’t have to report that. That means that professors who have repeatedly treated the classes they teach as dating opportunities” go unchecked and unreported.

“It’s a problem, because part of the reason students feel like they can’t say no to a professor’s proposition is because they are responsible for their grade. So I think that needs to be changed.”

Hough-Martin said the questions asked in the survey didn’t probe faculty attitudes enough, and she hopes students will be allowed to be more involved in what questions will be asked in the next climate review, recommended in two years.

Some students want university administrations to push for amendments to the law, to allow complainants to be informed of the results of investigations, and even to ban professor-student relationships, as some American universities have done.

“The role of the university administration needs to be in pushing for legislative change if the things that students and survivors want are not possible within the current legal framework,” she said.

The new chair of Concordia’s English department, Manish Sharma, began his term in January. He has taught medieval English literature at Concordia since 2004, but says he was not aware of the problem in the creative writing program until it hit the news in January 2018.

He says he is working hard to improve relationships in the department and is committed to making students feel safe by “openly, transparently and with student input and collaboration implementing the recommendations of the climate review, ensuring that I and other faculty members are always approachable and accessible if a student feels in any way that a classroom experience has gone wrong.”

He added that educating students about available mechanisms for initiating a complaint, making those mechanisms as accessible as possible, and ensuring that students are aware of resources, such as the Sexual Assault Resource Centre and the Office of Rights and Responsibilities, will also empower them.

“I would never have accepted this demanding role if I didn’t have absolute faith that the vast majority of my colleagues were honourable teachers devoted to their students and their pedagogy, and willing to work together with me and the administration to implement the recommendations of the climate review and to further the cause of creating a more just community for ourselves and our students,” he said.

Gabrielle Bouchard, now president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec and a former co-ordinator of Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre, said Concordia is a mirror of society at large, where most survivors of sexual violence slip through the cracks because of a system that is preoccupied with protecting the accused. She said it is good to see the school’s administration making declarations about the need for change, but she is wary.

“These are nice words, but I’ve seen nice words from Concordia for a long time,” Bouchard said. “When it gets to the nitty-gritty of the actual cases, Concordia is still doing the same thing as any other university, and the same as the justice system is doing, which is mostly letting down survivors. They say they won’t, but at the end of the day, the one thing that is clear is the mistrust toward the institution in the handling of complaints. That’s not new. It’s been there for a long time.”

She said what is missing from Concordia’s response to the scandal is a clear acknowledgment of wrongdoing and an apology.

“If you don’t recognize that you have not done good, and pretend that you can move on without recognizing this, you are missing the point. There is a very, very important step that needs to be done.”

Soon after the allegations became public, Shepard issued a statement in which he said: “On behalf of the Concordia community, I deeply regret that some alumni and students had the troubling experience they are reporting.”

But some say the university needs to issue a clear and formal apology to survivors of a dangerous climate that was allowed to fester for too long, if the school is to turn the page.

Sharma, for one, seems open to the idea.

“I don’t want to speak on behalf of the administration or on behalf of my colleagues in the English department without discussion regarding the nature of an apology going forward. But I will say personally, speaking for myself, that even between two individuals, a healthy relationship is not possible without openness to asking for forgiveness and forgiving. … I believe that what is true of a relationship between two people should also be true of a community. If we are going to move forward, we have to make every effort at reconciliation.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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