Editorial: Concordia must be more clear

Concordia’s climate review of the English department has made headlines in every major Canadian news network since its release last week. Last week, one of our News Editors, Mia Anhoury wrote a piece outlining the lead-up to the review, its focus, some recommendations from the review, and comments from several people involved.

Some of the recommendations for professors include: making students more aware of the process for filing complaints, prohibiting classes in bars, clearer definitions and training about power dynamics in relationships, consent and conflicts of interest. Another recommendation is the requirement to disclose a conflict of interest in professors’ relationships with students, and clear consequences for failure to abide by it.

We at The Concordian encourage you to read the report for yourself. Many of the recommendations are focused on clarifying Concordia’s legislation around sexual misconduct and the process of voicing a complaint.

There are many takeaways from the report. Concordia has started many initiatives already, such as updating their sexual violence policy, and indeed they seem willing to comply with many of the recommendations.

One recurring goal was increased clarity; many students are unaware of the process of filing a complaint, and many don’t even know what situations qualify as a breach of university protocol. Clarity among the administration is also key, since many members claimed to be unaware of the toxic climate in the first place. Lisa Ostiguy, the head of Concordia’s standing committee on sexual misconduct and sexual violence, told The Concordian, “I’ve been actively involved in sexual violence and sexual misconduct files and processes, and I was not made aware [of fraternization between students and faculty].” Accountability between faculty members and accessibility to the complaint system will put more checks in place to prevent violent behaviour.

The report claimed “there is no place for any romantic or sexual relationship between an instructor and his or her student.” This is the kind of concrete, definitive language that we need surrounding this issue. Ostiguy acknowledged that “it’s very difficult to prohibit relationships between adults that are consenting.” We at The Concordian believe this is an issue that requires more clear, direct, and precise language. Being vague in the policy or when referring to it will only contribute to the difficulty of prohibiting toxic relationships.

Responses from the university thus far have not included an explicit apology to past or current students who were affected by abuses of power from several members of their institution. This includes Alan Shepherd’s recent response letter to the climate review, titled “Concordia welcomes the recommendations put forth in the Climate Review of the Department of English.”

In his response, Shepard mentions that the “unhealthy” climate that the report describes in the English department gives the university “cause [for] concern.” Immediately after, however, he mentions that many students have had a positive experience, that only a small percentage of faculty members were accused, and that most of the complaints came from alumni rather than current students. What are we supposed to make of these defences? It’s hard not to see this as an effort to save face.

Shepard’s letter goes on to highlight the ways Concordia has been investing in sexual assault resources, independently, he stresses, of the climate review. We do think that the letter is a useful way to discuss or promote resources for sexual assault. It is great that the university is working on developing new strategies, and it certainly needs to provide new resources to students as much as possible. But without the preface of an apology, it is easy to perceive the report in-part as an attempt to preserve the university’s reputation.

We at The Concordian want to see the university take responsibility for its employees by explicitly apologizing to its students, and demonstrate their sincerity by clearly defining their policy around student-professor relationships, the definition of ‘conflicts of interest’ and consequences for when that is breached. The complaint-filing process needs to be clear and accessible, and the university needs to make an active effort to investigate claims and enforce consequences for perpetrators.

Graphic by Ana Bilokin


‘Unhealthy’ climate in the English department

Over 50 students and alumni say they have been invited for drinks by a teacher

The climate in the English department at Concordia has been described as unhealthy, according to a report by third-party investigators. The report, released last Thursday, was commissioned by the university in January to evaluate the climate of the working and learning environment in the department after sexual misconduct allegations came to light in January 2018.

The review was written by retired Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal Pierrette Rayle, Business Psychologist Alain Reid, and Organizational Psychologist François Rabbat. The findings are based on an online survey and interviews with people, including students, staff and faculty.

Students and alumni reported that faculty members have committed various forms of sexual violence, which are at the centre of the unhealthy climate in the department. “Certain faculty members have held some classes in bars, had parties at their houses, invited students for drinks […] or drugs. Some students reported that these situations have, on occasion, led to sexual misconduct being committed,” the report stated.

The report said there is a “whisper network” in the department, where incidents are only communicated among students. The network “underlines the lack of trust that certain students have in the university’s handling of these matters,” according to the report. Prohibiting the university from holding classes in bars is included in the recommendation.

Of the 89 students and alumni surveyed, 55 said they have been invited out for a drink by a faculty member, and 28 said they’ve been invited to dinner in a private or public setting. Thirty-eight said a faculty or staff member has engaged in behaviour aimed to stigmatize their identity, such as harrassment, threats and bullying.

Lisa Ostiguy, deputy to the chair on student life, said “we certainly don’t want to ban all opportunities” where students and professors meet off-campus. “But we do want to put some parameters or talk with the standing committee about what those opportunities should look like,” added Ostiguy.

The report also found there is a culture of favouritism towards students by some faculty. The report emphasizes that “there is no place for any romantic or sexual relationship between an instructor and his or her student,” despite the fact that Bill 151, an act to prevent and fight sexual violence in higher education institutions, does not prohibit these relations.

Ostiguy said “the [English] department has already started on a number of the issues around favouritism and some recommendations well before the climate review [was] released.” When asked if the university was aware of the common fraternization between students and faculty in the department, Ostiguy said “I’ve been actively involved in sexual violence and sexual misconduct files and processes, and I was not made aware.”

There is a general mistrust and lack of understanding towards the university’s handling of complaints, according to the review. Most respondents disagreed with a series of statements about the efficiency of the process for consulting resources and the values promoted by the department. This mistrust, according to the review, is why students voice their concerns on social media rather than through official channels.

The report also calls for another climate review in two years. Ostiguy said “the recommendations are certainly things that the university can act on.” Among the recommendations are educational and prevention training for faculty, awareness campaigns, and a selection process for publications to avoid favouritism. The report suggested the university hire a contact person for complainants involved in ongoing investigations.

With files from Mina Mazumder.

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