Home News A crisis in Concordia University’s creative writing department

A crisis in Concordia University’s creative writing department

by Candice Pye January 16, 2018 0 comment

What we know (and what we don’t) about the university’s “open secret”

The Concordia English department has come under fire after claims of sexual misconduct and abuse of power surfaced last week. Professors in the creative writing program have been accused of fostering a toxic, abusive and misogynistic environment for female students.

A scandal unfolds

After a blog post featuring these allegations was published by Concordia alumnus Mike Spry on Monday, Jan. 8, the university was criticized for allowing sexual misconduct at the hands of professors to go on for so many years.

Spry stated that, throughout his studies at Concordia, he witnessed “the normalization of sexualization of students by professors.” He noted that romantic or sexual relationships between students and professors were not “unusual or even prohibited” at the university.

The “open secret”

On Jan. 11, just days after Spry’s blog post was published, Julie McIsaac published her own essay, titled “And Then a Man Said It.” As a former Concordia creative writing student and ex-girlfriend of Spry’s, she wrote that Spry “not only permitted the culture of toxic masculinity that he rightly calls out, but he also helped to breed it.” McIsaac claimed Spry “was much more than a bystander” and was, in fact, “an active player who belittled and harassed women writers.” She also wrote that he was a man who she “knew to be deeply sexist.”

Former Concordia student Emma Healey also experienced sexual misconduct first-hand during her time in the creative writing program. In 2014, she published a personal essay, titled “Stories Like Passwords,” in which she discussed an abusive relationship she had with one of her professors.

Similar claims of sexual misconduct were also brought directly to the chair of the English department in February 2015 when six students wrote a formal complaint detailing the program’s toxic culture.

Healey’s traumatic experience in the creative writing program is far from the first within the English department. Former students Stephen Henighan and Heather O’Neill told the Toronto Star that the toxic culture within the creative writing program was prevalent when they attended Concordia in the mid-80s and late 90s, respectively. O’Neill said she was continuously sexually harassed by the late Robert Allen, a former Concordia professor and department chair.

Investigations begin

On Monday, Jan. 8, after Spry’s essay garnered significant attention, Concordia president Alan Shepard released an official statement in which he claimed he only became aware of the allegations that afternoon. In the statement, Shepard wrote the “allegations are serious, and will be treated seriously,” but admitted the university’s response to the issue is a “work in progress.”

Shepard also held a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 10, where he announced that an investigation into the allegations had been launched, along with a “university-wide assessment” of Concordia’s environment.

On Friday, deputy provost Lisa Ostiguy, dean of students Andrew Woodall, English department chair Andre Furlani and Kate Sterns, the coordinator of the creative writing program, held an open meeting to update students on the situation and respond to questions. At the meeting, Ostiguy said the university was in the process of investigating the claims and drafting a policy on student-staff relations.

The student body speaks

Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) released a statement on Jan. 9, calling on the university to “fully investigate all allegations and put [the] students’ safety first.” The statement also encouraged students to reach out to the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) and the Office of Rights and Responsibilities “if they have ever experienced or witnessed cases of sexual assault and/or harassment.”

A day later, the Concordia Student Union (CSU) stated that they were “extremely disappointed to have learned about the allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct” within the English department. They said they believe the survivors and “it is important that the university, the administration and the named individuals and departments be held accountable.”

Timeline: A history of allegations and inaction

1982

Robert Allen begins teaching in the English department at Concordia.

1984-86

Stephen Henighan, now a writer and Guelph University professor, studies under Allen at Concordia. Allen’s marriage ends and he begins preying on students, Henighan told the Toronto Star.

Late 1980s, early 1990s

Younger male teachers follow in Allen’s footsteps, and a culture of sexual abuse in the creative writing program is born, according to Henighan, who taught at Concordia during these years.

Late 1990s

Sexual harassment and abuse of power is “pervasive” in the department, Heather O’Neill, a Montreal author who was a Concordia student at the time, told the Globe and Mail last week. According to O’Neill, she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Robert Allen, including several “attempts to get [her] to sleep with him.”

November 2006

Robert Allen dies. The Montreal-based Véhicule Press publishes an obituary describing Allen as having had “a lasting influence on hundreds students over the years.” The English department plans a celebration to honour Allen.

Nov. 11, 2013

The Sexual Assault Resource Centre is created to support victims of sexual assault in the Concordia community.

Oct. 6, 2014

Canadian writer and former Concordia student Emma Healey publishes an essay on the website The Hairpin in which she makes allegations of sexual misconduct against a creative writing professor.

Oct. 17, 2014

Emma Healey and her essay are highlighted in a Globe and Mail article, titled “The danger of being a woman in the Canadian literary world.”

February 2015

Rudrapriya Rathore and five other Concordia students send a letter to the chair of the English department describing the creative writing program’s culture as “toxic” for women. The signatories meet with a human resources employee, but their complaint goes nowhere.

August 2015

Deputy provost Lisa Ostiguy chairs the Sexual Assault Policy Review Working Group, which reviews the university’s sexual assault policies and makes recommendations.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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