‘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.


Saving face shouldn’t be Concordia’s priority

When classes resumed following the winter break, the Concordia community was greeted by widely publicized allegations of sexual misconduct by instructors in the university’s creative writing program. These accusations came as a shock to some, but for many current and former English department students, they were simply a long-overdue acknowledgment of an “open secret.”

As was reported in the weeks that followed, the behaviour of certain teachers and the overall toxic, misogynistic environment of the creative writing program was not only common knowledge among many English department students—it had been publicly written about before. Former student Emma Healey published a personal essay online about her abusive relationship with an instructor years ago, and several students brought their concerns directly to the department in 2015.

Although it took the words of a male alumnus, Mike Spry, to finally catch the attention of the news media and the university’s administration, we at The Concordian are glad to see that, two months later, this problem has not been swept under the rug. An investigation into the allegations is underway. Two creative writing teachers have been suspended, and a task force is being assembled to review the university’s policies for preventing and dealing with sexual misconduct and sexual violence.

On Feb. 28, the Concordia Student Union (CSU) hosted a student congress to gather input about policy changes regarding sexual misconduct on campus directly from the student body. According to Leyla Sutherland, the CSU’s student life coordinator, these suggestions will be integrated into a proposal the union will present to the university’s administration.

One of the most prominent proposals for the task force discussed during the student congress was the implementation of university-funded, mandatory consent and power-dynamics training for all students, staff and faculty members. We at The Concordian strongly support this demand. The university should be a safe space for students to learn, flourish and achieve their academic goals. Staff and faculty members should support and empower student success, not hinder or threaten it.

Over the last few years, the Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) and the Commerce and Administration Students’ Association (CASAJMSB) have implemented mandatory consent training workshops for all of their frosh attendees. Ensuring student safety at frosh is vital, but sexual violence on campus is not limited to that first week of socializing and drinking. The Sexual Assault Resource Centre has also held consent workshops for Stingers teams and first-year students living in residence. It is long-overdue that Concordia’s administration follow the lead of its student associations and ensure its entire community is informed and protected throughout the year.

During the student congress, many students also voiced their anger about the way the university has handled sexual misconduct allegations in the past, claiming such incidents had been covered-up to protect Concordia’s reputation. This is why we at The Concordian believe university-implemented consent training should come with an acknowledgement by Concordia of its shortcomings.

Throughout their university degree, most students will hear at least one professor reiterate a variation of Socrates’s statement: “All I know is that I know nothing.” These words are meant to remind students that, in order to learn, one must first set aside their ego and admit they are ignorant.

As an educational institution, Concordia should also be willing to learn—and this begins by admitting mistakes and ignorance. Doing so would represent a commitment by the university to prioritize long-term, concrete change over its short-term public relations goals. Doing so would be a first step in rebuilding confidence in the university’s ability to protect its students and prioritize their well-being.

Although there is still a lot of work to be done, we at The Concordian believe there is reason to hope for substantial, positive change. But we would like to remind Concordia’s administration why this change did not come sooner. When students spoke up, the administration did not listen.

So, to the university’s administration: please turn to page two of this newspaper and read our coverage of the CSU student congress. The students are speaking; are you listening?


ASFA responds to English department sexual assault scandal

Concordia Association for Students in English criticizes lack of consultation by federation

The Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) discussed its plan of action to respond to the English department’s sexual assault scandal in a regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Jan. 18.

The federation moved to create a committee, chaired by councilor Taran Singh, which will make recommendations for measures to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation within the Faculty of Arts and Science. The committee will be composed of several councillors, including Concordia Association for Students in English (CASE) president Debby Gemme and three ASFA executives: president Jonathan Roy, vice-president internal Rachael Hutchinson and vice-president external Bianca Bruzzese.

The committee will have the power to make edits to ASFA’s official statement on the recent sexual assault scandal within Concordia’s English department before it is released. Gemme criticized ASFA’s executive team for not consulting CASE on the first draft of the statement. “We think there’s a lot in there that’s problematic,” she said to Roy during the meeting.

“We simply want to ensure that student associations are putting out a united and consistent message conducive to concrete change,” Gemme told The Concordian.

CASE has released its own official statement, calling for the English department to apologize for its “dismissal” of previous allegations, ensure that the third party investigating the allegations is transparent and communicates effectively with students, and update current school policies to address possible abuses of power by faculty, among other things.

ASFA will also participate in a larger task force overseen by the university’s administration. At the council meeting, Roy commented on his Jan. 15 meeting with dean of students Andrew Woodall and deputy provost Lisa Ostiguy, who will be coordinating an assessment of the university’s environment.

“We will be working together hand-in-hand. Not just ASFA and the administration, but we’re gonna try to reach out to all the other faculty associations and work with the Concordia Student Union so that we can create a task force to essentially look at the way sexual harassment and misconduct and such happens at Concordia,” he said.

Although Roy told The Concordian that the details about this task force have yet to be released, he told council that ASFA will advocate for mandatory consent training for all faculty and staff and the promotion of sexual assault resources on all course outlines.

Roy also met with the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, André Roy, on Jan. 12, who he said is committed to implementing “preventative measures and resources to ensure that institutional changes will be made to ensure the continual safety of our students.” These measures include “policy change, workshop implementation and educational/informational campaigns.”

Gemme also criticized Jonathan Roy for not consulting CASE before these meetings with high-level faculty.

“We would have liked to have been consulted,” she said. “The executives, but also the student body that we represent, really would have had a lot to say.”

Roy said that he had met with the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science to discuss a different issue, and had not planned to discuss the allegations of sexual assault. He did not consult CASE prior to his meeting with Woodall and Ostiguy because the two were scheduled to have a separate meeting with CASE.

“From now on, whenever we have any correspondence with either the dean of students or the dean of arts and science, we will be contacting you, and we will try to coordinate something,” the ASFA president told Gemme during council.

Photo by Alex Hutchins


Believing women is not a radical idea

Whether it’s the good, the bad or the oh-so-ugly, what happens in Hollywood often feels detached from our everyday reality. Perhaps this is why, despite the entertainment industry’s widely discussed “open secret” of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse of power, it can be upsetting and even shocking to learn of disturbing allegations at our very own university. What is even more troubling, however, is the fact that sexual harassment and assault at Concordia has never been a secret at all.

Recently, sexual misconduct allegations at the hands of Concordia professors have surfaced. An online essay written by Mike Spry, a former Concordia creative writing student, described cases of professors from the English department abusing their academic power to prey on students. Although no professors were named, the essay includes claims that English professors had sexually harassed female students. According to Spry, one professor even rented a hotel room so he could “entertain young writers away from his house and family.” The essay also mentioned “drunken nights of misbehaviour” and how professors would coerce female students into inappropriate and sexual situations under the guise of discussing their creative work.

Last week, Concordia president Alan Shepard announced that the university is taking several steps to investigate the allegations. He also claimed he was unaware of the incidents until early last week when Spry’s essay was published. We at The Concordian think it’s important to note that numerous current and former female Concordia students have been speaking up about the English department’s sexually abusive, toxic environment for years.

Similar allegations of sexual misconduct in the English department were made public in 2014 by former student Emma Healey in her online essay titled “Stories Like Passwords.” In response to Healey’s allegations, several students wrote a formal letter to the English department in 2015 describing the inappropriate atmosphere and stating they felt “uncomfortable and unsafe,” according to the Toronto Star.

Heather O’Neill, a Montreal author, has also spoken out about experiencing sexual misconduct at the hands of the late Concordia professor Robert Allen when she was a student in the late 1990s. According to The Globe and Mail, O’Neill described the sexual harassment and abuse of power within the department as “pervasive.” Stephen Henighan, a former student of Allen’s, told the Toronto Star that the “toxic culture” in the creative writing program can be traced back to the mid-1980s.

It is crucial to point out that many people at Concordia failed to support these students or investigate their claims. The university should have pursued these allegations earlier. Even The Concordian and The Link failed to report on the issue when Healey and O’Neill’s claims were made public, or when any of the other female students’ claims were submitted to the department. We all failed these victims.

While we remain hopeful about the investigative actions Concordia claims to be taking now, we would like to highlight that we are all at fault for this delayed response. We need to listen to survivors when they come forward. We need to give victims the benefit of the doubt. We need to be proactive when we hear even a whisper of an allegation. We need to do better—all of us.

The harsh truth is that Concordia would not be addressing these allegations had it not been for Spry’s essay. It is extremely unfortunate that it took a male writer making these claims for us to finally take action, while, for years, many female voices went unheard.

Abuse of power is a complex problem that must not be ignored. To do so would be incredibly irresponsible. We at The Concordian hope the publicity surrounding the recent allegations at Concordia teaches us all to do a better job of listening, believing and taking action—the first time.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


Letter to the editor

I write to voice my support for the Oct. 3 editorial, “Curriculums and Classes: Where Diversity Falls Short at Concordia.” I think it is crucial that students forthrightly address the insufficient diversity of faculty and curricula, challenging faculty and administration to address this problem as directly as possible.

In the Department of English, where I teach, there are presently 28 tenured or tenure-track faculty. Only two of these are people of colour—a figure wildly disproportionate to the diversity of Concordia students. Last year our department hired an Indigenous scholar in the field of Indigenous literature, and this is an important step forward. Yet in the department’s two previous job searches, none of the finalists were people of colour. Since one of those searches was in the field of Global Anglophone Literature (i.e. postcolonial literature), this is particularly troubling.

Unfortunately, efforts to advocate for diversification of faculty and curricula are too often met with anxiety and defensiveness. Last year an English department graduate student proposal for a research assistant position to help diversify syllabi was rejected by faculty. When a hiring committee made diversification of the department a key consideration in a search last year, they were rebuked by a higher committee for prioritizing diversity too much—hardly plausible given the composition of our faculty mentioned above. The English department’s proposal for a cluster hire in Black Studies to support the development of an interdisciplinary minor in that field was not selected among cluster hiring initiatives. It is always possible to gesture toward one recent hire or another in order to indicate progress on these issues, but it is also necessary to point out instances in which such progress has been impeded—especially given the structural reality of neglect on this front over recent decades. Sometimes the same diversity initiatives that are met with initial suspicion and resistance, then blocked at the level of implementation, are lauded as signs of progress because they have been proposed. That isn’t good enough.

The Collective Agreement of the Concordia University Faculty Association states that “The Parties agree that Concordia University would better advance the essential functions of the University, namely the pursuit, creation and dissemination of knowledge through teaching and research, if the diverse composition of Canadian society were better reflected in the bargaining unit. Therefore the Parties agree to encourage an increase in the proportion of members of under-represented designated groups as defined in the relevant legislation.” My view is that faculty and administration at Concordia need to do a better job of prioritizing this stipulation. It is heartening to see students insist on this point.

Nathan Brown
Associate Professor of English
Canada Research Chair in Poetics
Concordia University

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