McGill students and principal resolve professor sexual misconduct issue?
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
In an anti-climactic end, McGill University students have resolved their complaint with the university’s administration over mishandled complaints of professor sexual misconduct. On Wednesday, April 18, 2018, Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) leaders met with Principal Suzanne Fortier where they decided an action plan to move forward. The headway comes after three weeks of SSMU leaders and McGill students protesting the way the university officials have been handling complaints against five professors in the Faculty of Arts accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with students.
The meeting was not all planned. SSMU Vice President of External Affairs Connor Spencer and other SSMU executive leaders crashed a meeting Principal Fortier that was exclusively for the incoming and outgoing SSMU presidents. Spencer only discovered there was a meeting because the news medias contacted her. Spencer spoke to CBC News telling them about her surprise. Spencer recounted, "I found out about it because media contacted me last night asking to talk to me after the meeting with student leaders, to which I responded [that] I had no knowledge of such a meeting, and they must have gotten the date wrong."
Spencer had been the voice of the protest and movement against the administration. She headed the walkout, was the first listed in the open letter signature and was the one who spoke to the media to get the message to the public. SSMU's outgoing president has not been vocal about this issue. Spencer was upset that in order to be at the meeting she and other student leaders had to crash the meeting to get their voice heard on the issue. Spencer told CBC News, "It's really sad that those of us who are doing this work had to crash this meeting.
The meeting commenced with “high tension,” but progress was made. Spencer explained it helped to be able to speak face with the administration. Spencer told CBC, "By giving us space to express what students were concerned about, we were able to leave on a much more neutral footing and an understanding of where each side is coming from."
The outcomes were far different than the hardline demands the students had been requesting, there will be no external investigation or even investigation as Concordia conducted after the student outcry in January. Neither will any of the five professors be put on leave or not teach next fall. What the SSMU leaders were able to secure were meetings to discuss the issue every two weeks. The administration also promised they would address professor-student relationships, a key issue. The McGill Senate consisting of “faculty, staff, students, administrators and board members” would decide on the policy.
After weeks of dodging and refusing to publicly comment to the media, McGill finally issued a statement, Wednesday evening. The administration expressed, "Everyone acknowledged that they are pursuing a common objective — to ensure that the campus is and remains a safe place for all members of the McGill community — and are committed to the principles of procedural fairness."
The meeting occurred a day after McGill student leaders filed a complaint against the university with the Quebec Ministry of Higher Education. On Tuesday, April 17, 2018, both undergraduate and graduate student societies, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) joined forces for a letter and sent it by email to Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education, Hélène David about the university’s administration officials mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints.
The student’s letter amounted to a complaint against the university saying, they were in violation of Bill 151, that requires all universities in Quebec to have an integrated sexual violence policy, including dealing with professor-student relationships, which at the center of the controversy at McGill. For a week now the SSMU has been warning administration officials about this next move, but the university has failed to heed to demands. The letter to the Ministry of Education came after the SSMU published an open letter, the students staged a walkout, and they held a town hall meeting closed to the public and media.
McGill students were also supported by the faculty in their fight against the administration. About 150 professors signed an open letter and sent it to administration officials on Monday, April 16, 2018, supporting the students’ grievances against the administration. The 148 professors made it clear that they support the SSMU's call for an external investigation, their timeline to have it completed by June and the establishment of a single sexual violence policy covering both misconducts by students and faculty. The professors, who signed came from all the university’s faculties, not just Arts.
On Wednesday, April 11, 2018, a week after publishing an open letter to the university administration, students staged a walkout over the administration ignoring repeated calls over professors’ inappropriate and sexually violating behavior in the Faculty of Arts. McGill students were joined by neighboring Concordia University students, who have been dealing with complaints against professors in their Creating Writing program, which go back nearly 20 years. Around 1,000 students walked out of their classes at 2 p.m. and protested in front of the James Administration Building at McGill’s downtown campus in community square. The joint protest was organized by both schools students societies; Concordia Student Union and Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU).
Three weeks ago, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018, the SSMU published an open letter addressed to the administration calling for an investigation into the way the university and Faculty of Arts have been dealing sexual violence and harassment complaints against professors. The letter has been signed by over 2300 students and over 100 clubs and other student societies. The letter accuses administration officials of ignoring complaints against professors in the Faculty of Arts.
McGill students wanted an investigation conducted by a third-party investigation into the method McGill deals with complaints. They wanted the third-party to review and interview students who made informal and formal complaints to the Dean of Arts against professors for the last five years and review if tenure committees are aware of any complaints. The SSMU wanted the findings by this June. They were also demanding McGill to have an inclusive sexual violence policy that addresses professor-student relationships and misconduct complaints against professors.
For the past few years, there have been rumblings about five professors that have misused their positions among both the students and faculty. The professors are in five different departments in the Faculty of Arts; history, philosophy, political science, psychology and the Institute of Islamic Studies. Among the offenses are “holding office hours in bars with underage students, to routinely sleeping with students who are in their classes, to being in abusive relationships with students they’re supervising.” Additionally, the professors would “make sexually suggestive comments in person and in e-mails.”
Apparently, the situation with these professors is an “open secret” everyone knows what is happening, but nothing is being done to stop these professors from running amok. Students have been writing anonymous accounts of the misconduct for years in the McGill Daily. This past year, however, the protests are louder because one of the accused professors are up for tenure, which led to student letters to his department and a grassroots protest movement this past fall semester.
Despite the knowledge of the misconduct, students, however, are and have been discouraged from filing complaints by the Faculty of Arts. The complaints process at McGill has not and still does not deal with complaints against professors, especially those who engage in relationships with students, despite a revised sexual violence policy passed in 2016.
McGill students have been looking to Concordia for inspiration and to show McGill, an investigation is needed and a policy enforced to address professor-student relationships. Seeing the quick action at Concordia, made McGill’s students take an active and official stand against the administration’s lax treatment of professors who abuse their power.
Although, Spencer is declaring a victory, what the students received from the administration pales to their demands. The external investigation by a third-party going back five years, which was central to the student's demands is long forgotten. There is no immediate ban on professor-student relationships. So far no word on the five professors teaching next fall semester, and what happens to the professor who was bedding his students as he was up for tenure? They will keep up their careers as the students, who suffered under them live with the fallout of their actions. McGill is handing the students a raw deal, there will not be any quick action for an investigation, and a new policy like Concordia, nor swift dismissals.
Exam period destroyed the pace of the movement, with students more concerned about exams and marks than justice, even the news media lost interest, with only CBC News following through to the end. No matter what concessions until those professors lose their powerful posts, there will be no justice. Otherwise, next year they will be again trolling for the next target. Next fall, the students have to demand more than what they received and not cower, McGill owes their students to feel safe, not create a playground for professors on the make.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.