On April 5, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) held a press conference to discuss an open letter addressed to the McGill administration regarding sexual violence on campus. The letter, which was sent on April 4, accused at least five professors of sexual misconduct within the Departments of History, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, and World Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.
Additionally, the letter demanded the launch of an external investigation into the way the Office of the Dean of Arts responds to complaints against faculty members. Currently, the letter has signatures from more than 2,000 students and over 70 student organizations, including faculty associations such as the Social Work Students’ Association (SWSA), the Department of English Students Association (DESA), and the Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).
At the press conference, three students delivered speeches, followed by a question period moderated by SSMU Vice-President (VP) Internal Maya Koparkar. VP External Connor Spencer delivered the first speech, stressing the urgency of addressing the culture of sexual violence that exists on campus.
“A few weeks ago, we brought to the attention of the administration our concerns of the safety and well-being of a student who was being targeted by a professor who thought they were behind a guerrilla sticker campaign calling him out for violence,” Spencer said. “We presented a dossier of evidence and no action was taken.”
Spencer emphasized that this incident is far from isolated: Acts of professor-on-student sexual violence occur frequently, and worse, the administration is aware of many of them.
“Common things that are reoccurring are [the] open secret of faculty members sleeping with undergraduate students, or having abusive relationship with graduate students, and inappropriate behaviour during office hours,” Spencer said. “[There are also] folks [who feel] like they are obliged to do extra, outside classroom work that are not related to the content of the class, because they feel like it would affect their academic careers [if they refused to do so].”
Additionally, Spencer cited a warning that she received in her first year at McGill as an example of widespread sexual violence on campus.
“The culture at McGill is one that led […] some older woman in the program I was entering [to give me] a list of professors and [teaching assistants] to avoid, and to never go to their office hours,” Spencer said.
The second speaker, Maeve Botham, student representative from the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), echoed Spencer’s sentiments. In particular, Botham denounced the administration’s silence in response to sexual misconduct allegations against professors.
“The University knows who these professors are,” Botham said. “By not taking any action, McGill is failing its students. Students have the right to be safe on campus [….] without the fear of experiencing sexual violence. For students to be truly supported, the structure that is used to protect these professors must be torn down.”
Although handling issues regarding the sexual violence policy does not fall strictly under her mandate, Spencer expressed her frustration with procedures for reporting sexual violence.
“We are no longer accepting that the reason for administration inaction in addressing problems they are aware of stems from the students’ inability to file complaints,” Spencer said. “Instead, we wish to focus on the complaint process itself as the problem, as contributing to a culture of folks not wanting to come forward.”
Spencer elaborated that the current process in place to file complaints against faculty members is overly complicated, thereby dissuading victims from coming forward.
“One of the things that McGill likes to fall back on is the policy against sexual violence passed by the Senate on Dec. 1 2016,” Spencer said. “However, the policy against sexual violence actually [points to the procedures within] the Code of Student Conduct, which you can only pursue complaints against students under.”
Spencer also said that the policy on sexual violence has no procedures outlined for complaints against faculty members, creating a huge obstacle for survivors.
“One of the things that I’ve heard very often from folks is that, ‘I didn’t come forward because I didn’t think they would believe me, I didn’t think they would do anything,’” Spencer said. “Another reoccurring thing that I have heard [….] is that the [negligence victims] experienced from dealing with the University afterwards [only] perpetuated that violence even further.”
The open letter accuses the Office of the Dean of Arts of being ineffective in handling complaints. In order to catalyze policy change, the open letter demanded the launch of an external investigation into the Office of the Dean of Arts. The investigation is partly inspired by a similar case that took place at Concordia University in January, where faculty members in the creative writing program were accused of sexual misconduct. Within days, the Concordia administration responded with the promise of an external investigation.
“We have been having the same discussions here at McGill since September [2017,]” Spencer said. “When we looked over to our neighbour and saw that [changes] are taking place there, we just cannot accept [inaction] anymore.”
Beyond an external investigation, SSMU will also produce a report by the end of June 2018, outlining appropriate steps to improve the current reporting channel in the Faculty of Arts.
“We need to make sure that everything is documented, [including] exactly what’s going [on], exactly what our demands are, exactly what we want to change, and exactly McGill’s response to these things, [in order to] move forward next year as well.”
Responding to the spotlight the letter places on the Faculty of Arts, Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) VP Internal Rebecca Scarra expressed her Society’s support for the letter.
“We also want more action, more transparency, and more effective communication with our administration,” Scarra said. “When the system that has been in place for so long does not work, we need to change the system. We can no longer work within [a] system that has been built against us.”
With the help of the SSMU report, incoming executives will be able to continue pushing for policy changes next year. VP University Affairs-Elect Jacob Shapiro expressed his commitment to work with members of the community on this next year.
“I have already spoken briefly with [Spencer,]” Shapiro said. “I am going to seek out as many opportunities as possible to listen to and learn from those leading this work and anyone who wants to share their experience, insight, and opinion on this. Additionally, I know that we have a skilled group of incoming Senators, some of whom know a lot more about this than I do. I am looking forward to working with them.”
As of April 9, McGill University has not responded to interview requests regarding the letter. Meanwhile, McGill and Concordia student communities are coming together to stage a public walkout on April 11, in front of the James Administration Building at McGill University.
“As students, it really shouldn’t be our responsibility to make sure that we are protecting each other,” Koparkar said in her closing remarks at the conference. “But if this is the kind of work that we need to do [to get change], then so be it.”