Trying to understand McGill's Policy against Sexual Violence

By: Ariella Garmaise
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

This past week, The McGill Tribune spoke to Angela Campbell, associate provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity), and a pioneer of McGill’s new Policy against Sexual Violence. In this correspondence, the Tribune asked specifically about Our Turn—a third party inter-university action plan that grades Canadian universities on these types of policies­—pointing out that McGill scored zero for failing to process “faculty and staff [...] under the same SVP (Sexual Violence Policy) as students.” Her response was rather curt.

“This is false,” Campbell wrote. “The Policy applies to all members of the McGill community. Please read the Policy.”

How is it possible that Campbell had such a different interpretation from Our Turn’s report on McGill’s Policy against Sexual Violence? The answer is that Campbell’s claim isn’t entirely unfounded, but it’s not entirely right either.

Technically, Campbell is correct. As outlined in Section 1, “this policy applies to all Members of the University Community,” and faculty and staff members fall under the ‘University Community.’ However, when it comes to methods of recourse, students and faculty are held to different standards. Marc-Antoine Séguin, the director of Student Advocacy and University Affairs for the Legal Information Clinic at McGill (LICM), a not-for-profit organization that helps students navigate McGill policy, explained what exactly this difference entails.

“The complaints are brought through the same initial process, it’s just that there are extra steps,” Séguin said. “The sexual violence policy applies [to professors], it’s just not the only policy that applies […] so that’s the tricky part.”

Students behaviour, including instances of sexual violence, is processed according to the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, while professors are typically referred to Regulations Relating to the Employment of Tenure Track and Tenured Academic Staff. This may sound like a technicality, but the difference in processing has serious implications for how the university pursues those who have been accused of sexual violence. While the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures explains to students how to pursue these claims, the Regulations Relating to the Employment of Tenure Track and Tenured Academic Staff’s disciplinary procedures are largely confidential due to Quebec labour laws.

The Regulations Related to the Employment of Tenure Track and Tenured Academic Staff does contain some information on student-professor relationships. Section 7.16.6 of the tenure policy states that “proposed external evaluators shall not be current or former thesis or research supervisors, students, or individuals with whom the candidate has or has had a close personal or professional relationship.” As well, in its definition of consent, the Policy Against Sexual violence outlines that relationships between students and faculty are inherently nonconsensual for the student. However, neither document provides specific information pertaining to what exact steps students can take should they encounter sexual violence at the hands of a faculty member.

“[Professorial accountability], in terms of their unions and stuff, [isn’t] clear to students [....],” Maya Koparkar, Vice-President (VP) Internal of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) said. “And that’s important for students to know.”

Therefore, while not exactly false, Campbell’s interpretation that McGill students and faculty are processed under the same policy is misleading. While this speaks to current issues McGill faces regarding the nature of professor-student relationships, it is symbolic of an even broader problem: University policies are difficult to navigate. This is not unintentional, and students who don’t fully understand what exactly these policies entail can face grave consequences.

Forms response chart. Question title: How familiar are you with McGill’s Policy against Sexual Violence? . Number of responses: 66 responses.

In an online survey conducted by the Tribune in the week of Oct. 16, 51.5 per cent of 66 respondents said they are “not very familiar” with McGill’s Policy against Sexual Violence. Only three per cent of students said that they are “extremely familiar” with this policy. This applies to most McGill policies: they are long, filled with legal jargon that makes them hard to read, and students often don’t familiarize themselves with documents until absolutely necessary. Overwhelmingly, however, this survey found that students are distrustful of the university’s administration: 53 per cent of respondents said that “they have little faith in [McGill’s] ability to provide support.”

“The most important thing is that we have to have institutions that want people to be able to understand these policies,” Caitlin Salvino, chair of Our Turn, said. “I don’t think it’s too difficult [….] You need to recognize that this is an administrative policy, it’s not the criminal justice system, so it doesn’t have any of the requirements that the criminal justice system has.”

McGill’s Policy against Sexual Violence is especially hard to read because it is not a stand-alone policy, meaning it refers to other documents, namely the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures. The multitude of documents inhibits students’ ability to decipher what steps are necessary to pursue sexual violence claims, and does not properly address the specific sensitivity sexual violence cases require.

“What’s really important to understand is that sexual violence is a very specific form of violence […],” Salvino said. “So when the Student Code is created, it’s not created to be specifically sensitive to issues of sexual violence. One example would be that when responding to sexual violence, and being on the review committee deciding responsibility and sanctions, you need specific sensitivity training, for example what questions you can ask someone who experiences this and such, and that’s just not covered in the Student Code.”

However, the administration often stands in opposition to these third-party resources. “Public narratives around the Policy are sometimes misleading and this is unfortunate, as it can lead to confusion and misunderstandings,” Campbell said. “We encourage students to read the Policy directly, rather than relying on secondhand information.”

The issue is that students often don’t have the time, motivation, or even the ability to decipher texts that are so technical in nature. Our Turn provides students with a clear and digestible set of standards by which to judge these fundamental policies. Third-party organizations like Our Turn, LICM, SACOMSS (the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students' Society), and McGill’s Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (OSVRSE), are all helpful resources for students seeking to navigate the complexities of McGill’s Policy against Sexual Violence. The McGill administration needs to continue to support these groups in helping students navigate policy.

“It shouldn’t only be [a] burden on the students to do this,” Salvino said. “Students and their institutions should work together to make sure that [policies] are as accessible as possible.”

In particular, Salvino recommends that universities accompany complex policies with supplementary documents.

“A lot of schools [Our Turn reported on] had flowcharts at the end of their documents which is great for people who are reading these documents,” Salvino said. “You read the whole thing, and it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of clauses, especially if you don’t study law. At the end, some of [other schools’] documents have this wonderful graphic that shows you what your options [are] and what you can do, and that really helps when students are trying to access this stuff.”

Students’ confusion about McGill’s policies is certainly not limited to the Policy Against Sexual Violence. In fact, according to the survey conducted by the Tribune, students’ familiarity with the Policy against Sexual Violence fared well relative to other policies. 57.6 per cent of students are “not very familiar” with McGill’s Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, and an alarming 74.2 per cent of students said they are “not very familiar” with the Charter of Student Rights.Of the 66 students who filled out this survey, not a single respondent said they were extremely familiar with this document, which unlike with the Policy against Sexual Violence, students did not cite distrust in their administration as the primary cause for their confusion. Relating specifically to the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, 23.7 per cent of students said that this policy is hard to find, 27.3 per cent said the document is hard to read, and 25.8 per cent said that they are just generally indifferent toward this policy.

Forms response chart. Question title: How familiar are you with McGill’s Code of Student Conduct & Disciplinary Procedures?. Number of responses: 66 responses.

However, by failing to familiarize themselves with the Student Code of Conduct, students often miss out on beneficial information. The Legal Information Clinic at McGill exists specifically to help students navigate these policies.

“People come into this office thinking that they plagiarized on an exam, and they’re going to be expelled, [when] that is not at all the case,” Séguin said. “That’s not only because of [preconceptions], but because the Code is written in a way, and the letters that disciplinary officers send are written in a way, that’s very intimidating and that can lead to some stress. A lot of our job is to dispel those myths.

Supplementary resources, like SSMU’s “Know Your Rights” Campaign, are crucial in providing students with clear explanations for complicated policies.

“[Know Your Rights] does a really good job,” Séguin said. “I like that website, and it does a good job [of] walking you [through] and explaining things. And [the fact that] it comes from SSMU and not the [McGill] administration is interesting.”

Still, McGill is aware of the barriers students encounter when trying to access these policies, and is taking proactive measures to adjust accordingly. The administration is currently revising the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, and, for the first time in 30 years, its Charter of Student Rights.

“There are some big issues that we need to address,” Glenn Zabowski, associate Dean of Students said. “One is the ‘McGill Context.’ What is the jurisdiction of the university if something happens off campus? Currently our code is a bit vague and we need to address that. [Even] if something happens off campus, that does affect students learning experience at McGill.”

Currently, the administration does not have any supplementary programs in place similar to SSMU’s “Know Your Rights” campaign. Zabowski recommends that students directly approach the Office of the Dean of Students when they encounter any confusion regarding the Student Code of Conduct. One student who filled out the Tribune’s survey, found that “there is very little advertisement of rights and services provided to students by the university.” McGill currently advertises the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, and similar policies, at Discover McGill and through various academic sub-committees. With additional supplementary documentation that explain these policies in colloquial language, McGill could explain its policies without sacrificing legal precision.

Séguin endorses the creation of more literature on McGill policies.

“[Students need] general pamphlets explaining how these things work, and walking you through the process in more accessible language,” Séguin said.You keep the precision of the document itself, but you have this added document that walks you through it in friendly language. It can be organized in a way that makes it clearer how things work.”

University policies remain inherently confusing, and part of this confusion is impossible to avoid; documents of a legal nature are inclined to jargon and lengthiness that make them hard to read. However, McGill needs to do a better job of providing students with resources that explain these policies, while continuing to support organizations that work in this direction. Ambiguity about whether the Policy against Sexual Violence applies to professors is only one of the many ways in which unclear policies can make the process of reporting and addressing these issues nearly impossible for students. Moreover, unclear wording allows the administration to hide behind technicalities or contradictions.

Confusion surrounding policies is not limited to those crafted by McGill. On Oct. 16, SSMU held an Open Forum on the Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy it is currently drafting. The forum was poorly attended by both students and executives; VP External Connor Spencer was the only SSMU Executive present, and not including Spencer and a TVMcGill representative, there were only 13 people in attendance. SSMU needs to advertise these events more broadly, and to make sure that its executives show up to such crucial discussions. By holding SSMU to these standards, students have a valuable opportunity to help shape this policy, and ensure it reflects their needs. In the wake of international scandals about pandemic sexual violence—and perpetrators who evade recourse—it’s important to remember that local policy matters too. It is in holding community organizations accountable that individuals can have the most impact.


The student survey referenced in this article does not meet scientific standards.

The author of this article distributed the survey among the McGill student body using an anonymous Google form. The survey included a combination of multiple-choice, Likert scale, and open-ended questions about students experiences with McGill University and the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) policies.

During the data-collection period, the author posted the survey link to various McGill community groups on Facebook over the course of five days from Oct. 16 to Oct. 20. In total 66 students responded to the survey.