“I want some accountability from this institution”

Former Concordia student files human rights complaint against Concordia University

More than two months since the start of the investigation into sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against creative writing instructors, another Concordia professor has been accused of sexual harassment.

A former student, who wished to be identified by the pseudonym “Alya,” filed a human rights complaint with Montreal’s Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) after enduring what she considered to be repeated sexual harassment from a professor in the philosophy department.

Alya not only claims she was subjected to sexual harassment, but that the university did not take sufficient action despite years of discussing her experiences with faculty members, deputy provost Lisa Ostiguy and the university’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities (ORR). In her complaint, Alya said she is seeking $60,000 in damages from the university, and is requesting that Concordia take sanctions against the accused professor and “address the systemic failings of its sexual violence and sexual harassment policies” within the next six months.

“I want some accountability from this institution,” Alya said. “I want this to not happen to other people. It’s not fair. It’s not okay.”

The initial abuse

Alya claims she met the professor in 2008 when he was teaching a mandatory first-year course for students in the philosophy department. When he first began to show an interest in her outside of the classroom, she hoped it would lead to a friendly student-teacher relationship.

From her perspective, what happened instead was “creepy” and blatant harassment. He began to email her repeatedly, often late at night, inviting her to concerts and out for drinks. In one of his emails, the professor wrote he could “get you drinking Scotch and [sic] Dancing!!!!”, despite Alya telling him she did not drink. In another email, he wrote: “I could always slip some vodka into your pop when you weren’t looking.”

Alya alleges that, on two occasions, the professor invited her out under the guise of meeting with master’s students, but when she arrived at the bar, it was only the professor and another female student, who Alya said she believes also experienced harassment.

Feeling powerless and violated, Alya said the harassment drove her to discontinue her studies at Concordia and leave Montreal before completing her second semester to pursue a summer job.

“Even now, if I see someone that resembles him, it freaks me out,” Alya said. “I haven’t gone into the philosophy department since then […] There was no way in hell I was going to step foot in the philosophy department again with that man still working there.”

Nine years, no action

According to Alya, the allegations outlined in her complaint should come as no surprise to university administration. Since the spring of 2009, Alya said she has discussed her experiences with university officials, including deputy provost Lisa Ostiguy and former ombudsperson Kristen Robillard. Yet, according to Alya, she was bounced around “like a ball in a pinball machine.”

Alya first reached out to the ORR in May 2009, with the hope of being able to hand in and receive credit for assignments she did not finish when she left Concordia before the end of the semester. Alya said the ORR asked her to contact the then-chair of the philosophy department, Matthias Fritsch.

For the course taught by the accused professor, Fritsch granted her an extension and arranged for the outstanding coursework to be marked by an independent grader. However, Fritsch denied her request for an extension on work for two other courses she did not complete, telling her via email that her argument that she felt too uncomfortable to be in the department was “insufficient” and her decision to leave Montreal was made “at [her] own discretion.”

In the same email, Fritsch also recommended Alya speak to her other professors about extensions, but cautioned her that it “would be best not to mention the harassment case, as it is confidential and also […] an insufficient reason.” Alya did not tell her other professors about the harassment and failed both courses.

When she returned to Concordia to take classes outside of the philosophy department in December 2014, Alya reached out to Gregory Lavers, the then-interim chair of the philosophy department, about removing her failed courses from her transcript. He referred her back to the ORR, where she was told she had waited too long to file a complaint with the university. She was then referred to Robillard. Despite filing a complaint with the then-ombudsperson, Alya never received a response, even after she called to follow up.

One of many Concordia complaints

Currently employed in the tattoo industry, Alya said that, when she began her studies at Concordia nearly 10 years ago, she had been hoping for a career in academia. Although her transcript was altered in 2017 to change her failed marks to “discontinued,” Alya said her lowered GPA had already cost her opportunities, including rejection from a McGill education program.

Despite filing the complaint on her own, Alya insists she is not the only woman who faced harassment from this professor. As a student, she suspected some of her female peers were also being targeted, and she claims she once spoke to the ORR on behalf of another student making allegations against the professor. She also said she discovered a number of female students avoided taking courses taught by this professor because of his reputation of being inappropriate.

In October 2017, encouraged by the #MeToo movement and the subsequent investigation into Concordia’s own creative writing program, Alya decided to reach out to CRARR and file a complaint.

“With the Me Too thing, I thought, ‘Oh, wow, people can actually do something about what happened.’ This exact thing happened to me, and no one did anything,” Alya said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I have to do something.’”

Although the current investigation being conducted by deputy provost Lisa Ostiguy is focused on Concordia’s English department and creative writing program, there have been multiple complaints filed against the university in recent years. According to Fo Niemi, the executive director of CRARR, the organization has taken on six human rights complaints against the university, four of which are still being considered by Quebec’s Human Rights Commission.

“We believe, in the end, someone at the institution has to be held accountable,” Niemi said.

“We want to pinpoint, specifically, the president and the board of directors […] Ultimately, the president, Alan Shepard, has to be held accountable.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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