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The committee on teaching staff-student relationships has failed students

Commentary/Opinion by

The Ad Hoc Senate Committee for Teaching Staff-Student Relationships was created to respond to widespread student concerns over how McGill deals with abuses of power in the wake of last year’s winter semester walk-out. The committee was tasked with making non-binding recommendations to Senate which would address McGill’s obligations vis-à-vis intimate relationships between teaching staff and students. On Dec. 5, the committee will present its findings to McGill Senate. However, as the student representatives on the committee, we feel that the final report does not satisfy student frustrations.

Through consultations, including written feedback and a student town hall, we saw overwhelming student support for the prohibition of relationships between students and professors. Though this support was particularly salient at the undergraduate level, it was echoed by community members at all levels of the university. In most cases the request included exemptions for situations such as those involving a relationship formed prior to the assumption of teaching duties. The majority of Committee members—including all of the student representatives—strongly agreed with the suggested ban on teaching staff-student relationships.However, the final report does not reflect this. Rather, it recommends a prohibition of relationships within academic units, with various avenues for exemption. The report includes two major loopholes:

Category 1: The teaching staff has no supervisory/evaluative/teaching role over the student AND The relationship will not create the reality or perception of any unfair advantage or disadvantage to the student concerned or to other students in the unit AND The relationship will not place an undue burden on other faculty members within the unit who are obliged to make accommodations for their colleague.

Category 2: The relationship existed prior to both parties participating in the same academic unit AND each element of the category 1 exemption applies.

The fact that the final report ignores student demands for a ban is unacceptable. Teaching staff hold a form of power over students regardless of whether they have supervisory or evaluative responsibilities toward the student. Framing the need to ban student-teaching staff relationships as a matter of conflict of interest completely negates the power dynamic that is inherent to these relationships and puts student safety at risk.

Furthermore, the report defines an ‘academic unit’ as “an administrative unit in which an academic program is delivered at an undergraduate, graduate, or postgraduate level.” This means that a small faculty could be considered a singular unit, or a large department could be considered multiple units. In short, intimate teaching staff-student relationships could plausibly be permissible in larger departments with several streams, such as English or International Development Studies.

Most importantly, the report does not adequately address the consequences a professor may face when in violation of the policy, including, but not limited to, tenure policy. At present, applicants compile their own tenure dossiers, and are not mandated to include information on disciplinary sanctions. Furthermore, tenure can protect predatory professors occupying senior positions from facing removal for sexual misconduct. The only suggestion in the report relating to tenure recommends as follows:

Ensure that official records that include discipline for breaching the policy are communicated to the Dean of the Faculty, prior to a decision being made about tenure.

We are doubtful that McGill has the capabilities to deal with these communications appropriately. The use of academic spaces for romantic and sexual pursuit must be understood as a severe form of academic misconduct which interferes with the social and academic welfare of students. Consequently, disciplinary measures cannot merely be communicated– rather, their formal inclusion in tenure dossiers is necessary. Disciplinary measures should include recommendations on rejecting tenure applications, administrative appointments, and other forms of promotion, and these recommendations should be binding.

Complaints that do not result in official disciplinary measures must be taken into account, particularly, if patterns of repeated complaints exist. This is especially true in cases involving established senior professors, who often have the means to intimidate or discourage students who would otherwise file formal complaints. The report does not reflect this stance, despite the fact that students supported it throughout the consultation process . Terms of tenure should not support professors who engage in inappropriate relationships with students.

As students, we began this committee’s proceedings with the hope that our voices would be taken seriously. McGill has historically failed to engage with students on the subject of sexual violence, and as community members with long-standing involvement in equity work on campus we had reason to feel disillusioned. We know, through extensive experience, that this university tends towards ignoring threats to student welfare unless they are pushed by negative publicity. Nonetheless, we participated in meetings, pushed for consultations, organized a town hall, extended a call for submissions, and in many instances, we came up against misogyny, tone-policing, and general condescension. It is unfortunate that despite the committee’s work, McGill has once again chosen to protect those in power.

The report’s recommendations highlight the reality that the committee’s decisions protect staff, and not students.

 

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