Supporting survivors means supporting their allies, too

This past year has seen momentous changes in the way McGill handles sexual misconduct allegations: The university has hired a third-party special investigator and launched an ad hoc committee regarding student-teacher relationships. However, structural issues continue to persist. On Sept. 21, the World Islamic and Middle East Studies Student Association (WIMESSA) published a statement on their Facebook page announcing that the McGill administration had removed two faculty members in the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) from their administrative positions. According to WIMESSA’s statement, the Provost and Dean of the Faculty of Arts claimed that only an outsider could serve as director without bias, and that Undergraduate Program Director (UPD) Pasha Khan was subject to a conflict of interest after being sued for defamation by colleague Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim. The details are murky, but the message is clear: Two professors face professional retribution for speaking out, and, even as the university attempts to reorganize in the wake of student protests, it upholds a structure that seems detrimental to survivors and their allies.

In its statement, WIMESSA affirmed that it had no prior knowledge of the proposed administrative changes and that it was not consulted. Moreover, WIMESSA student representatives received the news of these decisions on the first day of classes; universities have a tendency to announce dramatic changes at busy times of the year in hopes that students simply won’t pay attention. While the substance of Khan’s purported conflict of interest is obvious, the depth of Hartman’s involvement is unclear. In Apr. 2018, Hartman signed the faculty members’ letter of support for the Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Open Letter in her capacity as a professor in the IIS. The letters alleges a mishandling of complaints against faculty members in the IIS and other departments in the Faculty of Arts.

McGill’s lack of transparency regarding Hartman and Khan’s departures is concerning. The only information currently available is WIMESSA’s statement on their Facebook page and website, as well as the absence of Khan and Hartman’s names on the IIS website’s list of administrative staff. McGill should have disclosed these events publicly—students’ associations cannot be solely responsible for announcing substantial departmental changes three weeks after the fact. McGill has failed IIS students by leaving them in the dark about departmental changes that directly impact them. Major university-wide changes, like the appointment of a special investigator, are a step in the right direction, but those changes are only as powerful as the administration allows them to be. To see substantive reform, McGill must continue to work with individual faculties and departments to create policies tailored to their specific needs.

If the administration has students’ best interests at heart, they should have consulted WIMESSA student representatives while making the decision to replace Hartman and Khan, or at least notified them in advance that a decision was being made. The disregard for WIMESSA’s input is troubling, since student representatives understand their constituents’ concerns better than distant administrative bodies. Moreover, Hartman and Khan’s replacement serves as a reminder that teaching assistants, professors, staff, and other faculty members are all a part of an academic hierarchy that is conducive to abuses of power.

Due to the lack of official communication on McGill’s behalf, the exact nature of the professors’ alleged conflicts of interest is unknown. Still, Hartman’s removal sets a precedent that supporting survivors is dangerous. Silencing Hartman and Khan will only make students in the department feel less safe and more reluctant in calling out potential abuses in the future. Until the administration demonstrates, rather than just proclaims, its commitment to supporting survivors, its expressions of concern will ring hollow.

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