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Open secrets and closed doors: McGill must do better in handling abusive professors

Editorial/Opinion by

“After Concordia, McGill faces its own #metoo moment,” an April 4 CBC headline reads.

McGill is failing in its response to allegations of sexual abuse. The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) April 4 open letter on sexual violence and harassment allegations against McGill faculty names five specific Arts departments in which complaints have repeatedly come up, and calls on the university to launch a third-party investigation into how the Office of the Dean of Arts is handling complaints against faculty members.

The public letter makes the “open secret”—of certain professors who have a history of complaints against them—explicit. Signed at press time by 2,059 students and 73 student groups, it is a specific, thoroughly elaborated demand on behalf of student safety and well-being. Although McGill provided a statement on the letter to major news outlets, it did not respond directly to the McGill community until April 10, via an email sent on behalf of Provost and Vice-Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi.

The email reiterates that the administration duly investigates every formal complaint against a faculty member, and that McGill “does not tolerate sexual misconduct in any form.” The specific demands of the open letter are not mentioned at all. As a response to public outcry of this scope and magnitude, it is stunningly dismissive.

The fact remains, McGill has yet to convincingly demonstrate that the administration hears and understands students’ concerns about the ongoing issue of abusive professors. When students are being harmed, the continual litany responses, all pointing students to existing procedures or claiming bureaucratic constraints as excuses in lieu of tangible action, are simply not good enough. Moreover, deference to formal complaint mechanisms ignores the fact that there are many reasons why a student may choose not to officially disclose an instance of abuse, and fails to tackle the systemic nature of the problem.

Student dissatisfaction with McGill’s sexual violence and harassment policy framework is not new. However, the 2017-18 school year has seen student groups and SSMU focus specifically on the handling of complaints against faculty members: As part of its C- grade for McGill’s sexual violence policy, SSMU’s Oct. 11 Our Turn report condemned the fact that complaints against faculty and staff are processed under a separate policy than complaints against students. In the same month, the Zero Tolerance student group’s sticker campaign explicitly called for a particular Islamic Studies professor’s tenure application to be denied due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

That McGill students come and go every year, while professors can stay for decades, makes it harder to see tangible outcomes of an investigation—and easier for alleged perpetrators to continue teaching.

 

It’s not surprising that members of the administration are aware of the problem, as the letter states, because many McGill students know of the professors with complaints against them, too. Through Reddit threads, blog posts, and word of mouth, McGill students and alumni inform and keep each other safe when the school has failed to. These informal networks arise out of necessity, but there are significant limits to their reach. Students may enroll in courses, or pursue research positions; under predatory professors without knowing these “open secrets” about them. This has the potential not only to jeopardize students’ academic experiences, but their safety. Alarmingly, for many first years, this letter is perhaps their first introduction to the problem.

In his statement to off-campus media, Vice-Principal (Communication and External Relations) Louis Arseneault said that every complaint or report against a faculty member is thoroughly investigated, echoing the administration’s persistent referrals to existing channels and processes. However, relying on formal complaint procedures misunderstands the barriers to reporting instances of sexual violence and harassment, particularly when a perpetrator has power over a student’s academic career. Moreover, formal complaints must be filed within a certain time period, making them difficult to see through for students who graduate. That McGill students come and go every year, while professors can stay for decades, makes it harder to see tangible outcomes of an investigation—and easier for alleged perpetrators to continue teaching.

All that said, the more likely reason that students have turned to open-letter writing and guerrilla sticker campaigns is that the current processes simply don’t work. Even if they do, students don’t know it: Because of Quebec confidentiality laws, the university cannot disclose current investigations or the results of an investigation. All students see are professors who they’ve been warned about continuing to escape the consequences.

This lack of communication erodes student trust in the University. Skirting the need for a response by citing confidentiality laws is not good enough. The letter does not request any specific information about current or past cases. It simply demands an independent investigation into current procedures being used, following specific criteria. McGill should follow in Concordia’s footsteps, as Concordia recently announced an investigation and campus-wide survey in response to allegations against its creative writing department, under the same provincial laws.

After the 2017 Fall General Assembly, McGill demonstrated that it is willing to act clearly and swiftly on alleged threats to student safety. It must do the same now, and be crystal clear about the course of action it plans to take. Doing nothing new sends as clear a message as the letter does: It tells students that McGill does not care about their safety from sexual violence and abuse.

 

This article has been updated since the April 10 email to all students sent on behalf of Provost and Vice-Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi. The print version of this article (Volume 37, Issue 25) was printed on April 10, prior to students receiving the email.

  • Nicole Gauvreau

    It’s not even just McGill students/members of the McGill community that find out about these profs. When considering my master’s I had thought about applying to McGill to do an MA in Political Science; my interests would have likely meant having one of the open secret profs as my advisor so I didn’t apply (I ended up doing work towards that master’s elsewhere and am currently doing a another master’s in a completely different field).

  • matt10023

    The problem, I’m guessing, is that students are making allegations which the school finds unfounded after an investigation. Since none of us know the facts in these matters, including the editorial board, it would seem people are getting freaked out by rumour.

    I suspect that the students want no bar for dismissal of a professor based on an allegation. That would be the perfect process they seek.

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