The Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA) announced on Oct. 9 that the Department of Political Science had unanimously ratified a set of guidelines regarding relationships between instructors and students at McGill, becoming the first department at McGill to do so.
McGill’s Policy Against Sexual Violence suggests that professor-student relationships constitute an abuse of authority, although the administration also released a memorandum in May which outlines how intimate relationships between staff and students should be conducted. For its part, the Department of Political Science’s new guidelines take a strong stance against intimate relationships between instructors and their students.
“The department regards intimate friendships as well as sexual and romantic relationships between instructors and students as generally incompatible with educators’ professional responsibility,” the guidelines read.
The guidelines define ‘instructors’ as professors, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members, and teaching assistants. The document also offers a list of recommended practices for teaching staff, including advice on appropriate office hours, social media conduct, and respecting students’ privacy.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, PSSA President Bella Harvey stressed the importance of having these guidelines formally and explicitly written out.
“I think some things, even if they’re understood, [need to be formalized],” Harvey said. “I think [the guidelines are] an accountability mechanism for students to have and for the department to have.”
Harvey also expressed her belief that these guidelines will set an example for other departments and even inspire them to pursue similar guidelines.
“I know [the Department of History] is working on [similar regulations] now, too, and I’ve had [the Institute of] Islamic Studies [ask about them as well],” Harvey said. “I think a lot of students and professors in various departments would like to establish these on a departmental level. I think they’re a good template for other departments and students to use, as well.”
However, Harvey emphasized that these guidelines are part of a greater change.
“Hopefully these issues will stop in their tracks,” Harvey said. “But I also realize that a piece of paper isn’t necessarily going to do that […] I at least think it is a step in the right direction.”
PSSA Vice President (VP) External Jennifer Chan echoed these sentiments and further clarified that these guidelines are the result of the previous work of many students.
“I think it’s important to remember that this is just one step forward and that the step forward could only happen with the labour put in by people, student groups, [and] individuals last year,” Chan said. “It’s not the first time people have been talking about student-teacher relations. And this kind of labour is disproportionately taken on by women, women of colour, black or Indigenous folks, trans folks.”
According to Chan, SSMU’s April 2018 Open Letter Regarding Complaints Against Professors helped mobilize the Department of Political Science to pass their guidelines. The letter, which asserted that the Office of the Dean of Arts had failed to seriously address complaints of sexual violence, called for a third-party investigation into the Office of the Dean of Arts on the handling of formal and informal complaints.
Chan and Harvey both emphasized that the good nature of the relationship between the PSSA and the Political Science Department was essential in getting these guidelines ratified. According to Harvey, had it not been for the support of the department, it would not have been possible to pass these guidelines.
“We are very privileged and lucky as a student association to have the relationship that we do with our department.” Harvey said. “I know other groups have a harder time, but it’s still important that they try.”