Quebec’s proposed Bill 151 requires all postsecondary schools to have a campus sexual violence policy by September 2019. Among other things, the bill stipulates that an acceptable policy must provide a clear code of conduct on relationships between faculty members and students.
In Fall 2016, McGill introduced a Policy against Sexual Violence (SVP), which applies to all members of the university community. It also has a blanket Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment, or Discrimination Prohibited by Law. When it comes to professor-student relationships specifically, however, both policies offer little on recourse and disciplinary measures. This is chiefly because both the SVP and the sexual harassment policy process complaints against professors differently than those against students, redirecting them to opaque, internal disciplinary procedures. Meanwhile, allegations of sexual harassment or undesired advances from professors often surface on campus—with no apparent recourse.
Quebec’s Bill 151 is a much-needed wake-up call: If it is truly committed to student safety and well-being, the McGill administration must update the SVP and related policies to explicitly restrict any faculty member from pursuing an intimate relationship with a student whom they are evaluating, with clear repercussions otherwise. Further, the SVP must include specific, transparent, and accessible means of disclosure and recourse for students affected by these relationships and power abuses.
Whatever the situation, an intimate relationship between a professor and a student they are evaluating is a conflict of interest. Of more dire ethical concern is the question of consent in these relationships. The power differential between students and professors is enormous—whether acting as an intro-course lecturer or a master’s research supervisor, a professor has substantial control over their students’ success at McGill, and, by extension, their career prospects upon graduation. Given this compromised capacity to object to unwanted sexual advances, it is unethical for a professor to initiate any relationship with a student directly beneath them.
The McGill SVP barely addresses these relationships, and fails to lay out concrete guidelines for students who find themselves involved in them. The SVP includes exactly one line about professor-student relationships specifically. In its definition of consent, it identifies intimate relationships that coincide with “an abuse of a relationship of trust, power or authority, such as the relationship between a professor and their student,” as non-consensual. McGill’s sexual harassment policy reiterates that a professor exploiting sexual activity as a condition of a student’s educational outcomes constitutes sexual harassment. Crucially, the definition fails to specify that every direct relationship between a professor and their student unacceptably compromises consent.
At the same time, professors who have allegedly pursued such relationships continue to work at McGill with apparent impunity. Clearly, something is not working. To address these relationships and the unique harm they cause students, McGill must first recognize the gaps in its existing policy framework. Yet, some members of the administration seem chronically reluctant to do so.
In a statement to the National Post published on Nov. 15, Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures, and Equity) Angela Campbell implied that McGill’s SVP and additional policies already cover professor-student relationships. What Campbell failed to mention is an absence of accessible direction and support for students wishing to pursue recourse against an abusive professor. Students can report professors for sexual harassment, coercion, or violence, but what happens next is unclear. While complaints against students are processed under McGill’s Student Code of Conduct, complaints against professors are processed under the Regulations Relating to Employment of Tenure Track and Tenured Academic Staff. The regulations’ disciplinary procedures are confidential, due to Quebec labour laws. With no transparency in the handling of allegations against professors, nor information on the disciplinary outcomes of filing a complaint, it is misleading to say that McGill’s sexual harassment and violence policy framework adequately applies to professor-student situations.
Moreover, nothing in the regulations explicitly restricts professors from pursuing relationships with students. Perhaps this is assumed to be common knowledge. However, when allegations against professors continue to crop up on campus, and avenues for recourse are so unclear that students have mobilized a grassroots campaign against one professor accused of sexual misconduct, stricter guidelines are clearly needed. These should include provisions on acceptable conduct and disclosure of other hierarchical relationships, such as between students and teaching assistants.
Quebec’s Bill 151 provides concrete recommendations on developing more comprehensive and accessible policy. These include consolidating all sexual assault policies and procedures into a common and accessible document, and duly educating all students on them from their first year at McGill.
Per the SVP, the McGill administration recognizes the unique problem of consent within student-professor relationships. That means little if the University doesn’t also have the policy mechanisms to prevent such relationships, to take evident transparent disciplinary action against those professors who pursue them, and to provide clear steps for disclosure and support for affected students.
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