Two graduates who took up Concordia University's urging to come forward with sexual harassment complaints are disillusioned and disappointed in the process.
They lodged the complaints in 2018 about alleged harassment that took place more than 20 years earlier. In January they learned from a journalist that the professor was exonerated in September and had not been fired. They say they never received any notification from the Montreal university of the exoneration.
"They asked us to come forward and so we did. But why bother asking us if they’re not going to hear us and do anything about it?" sexual #harassment
In January, 2018 allegations of widespread sexual misconduct at Concordia’s creative writing department surfaced online, prompting some alumni to come forward with their own stories.
Before sharing her own story with National Observer, Heather O’Neill, an award-winning novelist who was once a student at Concordia’s creative writing program, took to Twitter at the time to remind everyone that she had openly and publicly spoken about sexual misconduct at the university since the late 1990s and that she, too, had been sexually harassed by an older professor for a year.
When the allegations surfaced, Alan Shepard, then Concordia’s president, vowed to take decisive action. He promised formation of a task force and a university-wide assessment of Concordia's environment, with an emphasis on preventing sexual harassment. He also urged people to report sexual violence and misconduct to the university.
Ibi Kaslik, a best-selling novelist and University of Toronto professor, was one of two women who came forward and formally filed complaints against a professor. In a CBC article, she spoke about an incident of inappropriate behaviour that took place in the 1990s. She explained that at the time she pondered whether to report the incident but felt it wouldn’t amount to much since she was told that the professor had tenure. When she heard about the recent allegations involving professors at the creative writing department and found out that professor was still teaching there, she felt compelled to finally say something. Other former students shared similar stories about this professor in the same article.
Shepard, the university president, had promised that “any allegations of misconduct would be thoroughly investigated and, when warranted, would result in disciplinary measures up to and including possible dismissal.”
After contacting the university, Kasik was interviewed at length by a labour lawyer. “That was the only person who spoke to me,” she told National Observer in a phone interview. “It didn’t feel like I had anyone on my side and I was made to feel like they wanted us to go away. It was discouraging, upsetting, and a form of re-victimization.”
Being kept in the dark
Fast forward a year. Despite aggressively pursuing the university for answers, Kaslik was kept in the dark. In January, the CBC journalist who had originally interviewed her when she filed a complaint, informed her that the professor had not been fired and had been completely exonerated back in September. The journalist had contacted the lawyer representing the professor and he had informed the journalist of the exoneration. The complainants were never notified of this. Kaslik found out five months after the fact when the journalist told her by email in January. She was left feeling blindsided and angry.
In a series of emails, Fiona Downey, deputy spokesperson for Concordia University, stated that "while we don’t publicly discuss the specifics of any conversation with an individual complainant, we inform the complainants about the completion of an investigation. As an employer, we cannot inform them of the sanctions related to an investigation, for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, including privacy legislation. For the same reasons of confidentiality and privacy, including privacy legislation, we don’t ever discuss either the status or the results of an investigation with a journalist."
The university insists it did nothing wrong and acted according to provincial legislation. “We’ve been in contact with Quebec government officials to clarify that Concordia is, in fact, complying with all relevant legislation on matters of privacy and confidentiality. We have been assured that Concordia’s practices do comply,” Downey said in an email. "We do understand this is particularly frustrating for the complainants who want to know the exact results, but this is the reality we face.”
The Concordia Association for Students in English (C.A.S.E.) has also called out the university's "mishandling" of the case, referring to the current system for representing survivors of sexual violence and preventing the abuse of students as "broken" in a statement.
Privacy legislation has been at the heart of a similar incidents elsewhere. Students in other Quebec universities who disclosed alleged misconduct by teaching staff have been dismayed to repeatedly come up against bureaucratic secrecy that makes them feel like they’re the enemy and not part of a process to reach fair resolution. In 2014, PhD student Véronique Pronovost filed a complaint against a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) who repeatedly sexually harassed her. Nine months later, she found out that she won her case, but she still doesn't know what, if any, sanctions the professor faced because she wasn't entitled to that information.
Pronovost became depressed and was so traumatized by the experience that she left UQAM and continued her studies at Ottawa University. A confidentiality agreement she had to sign the minute she filed the complaint (such agreements are generally aimed at protecting privacy of an accused employee) stipulated that she was not allowed to talk about the incident or attempt to find any other victims. In an interview with Le Devoir, she said she felt angry and confused about a system that made no sense to her. “I filed a complaint to protect the next generation of students, but if no one knows about the incident, you’re not protecting anyone. Why did I even bother doing this? I don’t feel any sense of justice. And yet, I won my case…”
Privacy concerns lead to perceptions of injustice
While protecting an individual's privacy during an investigation is understandable, where does one draw the line? How can concerns be addressed without the academic institution appearing to prioritize the reputation of the institution and the staff over the needs of their students. Does it even make sense to keep the conclusions of an investigation confidential?
The frustration echoed by complainants in some of these cases highlights the main problem with the lack of transparency; it leads to distrust and acts as a deterrent. If students feel that there will be no punishment, no real repercussions for the perpetrators, and that institutions are simply going through the motions for appearance’s sake, they eventually won’t bother complaining because the stakes and the disruption in their own lives are much too high. That is active discouragement.
Despite active discouragement, many victims do find the courage to come forward – often, years later. How they are left feeling throughout the process can also backfire on an institution’s reputation. Reacting to Kaslik’s story online, broadcaster Garvia Bailey was quick to tweet: “As my daughter contemplates where to go to school next year, it’s too bad that Concordia is pushing young women away.”
As my daughter contemplates where to go to school next year, it’s too bad that @Concordia is pushing young women away.— garvia bailey (@garveyschild) February 8, 2019
Fair statement or not, it’s an interesting reaction to ponder because she is undoubtedly not alone. Since women comprise 60 per cent of the current Canadian student body, solid sexual harassment policies and complaint procedures can and should be a deciding factor when choosing where female students will spend their academic years.
While unable to comment on the specific case, Concordia, insists that it investigates allegations of sexual misconduct thoroughly.
“What I can tell you – and we’ve been very public about this – is that coercion, abuse of power, sexual misconduct and sexual violence are unacceptable behaviours and Concordia will not tolerate these behaviours from staff or faculty,” says Downey. “We care deeply about the wellbeing of our community and continue to listen, to learn and explore new ways of creating a safe and respectful learning and working environment.”
Many positive steps forward, but still a work in progress
In 2017, Bill 151 was passed in Quebec, requiring all CEGEPs and universities to create a standalone sexual assault policy. Over the past year, Concordia made numerous changes to promote a safe learning and working environment for its community.
This past December, it adopted an updated sexual violence policy that uses more survivor-centric language and increases clarity on process and support services available to the community. The university created the 'Standing Committee on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence,' a permanent university committee of students, faculty and staff convened to revise and implement the university’s policy on sexual violence and to coordinate efforts to prevent and respond to university sexual violence and sexual misconduct. Specifically, this group addresses, implements and monitors both the university’s obligations under Bill 151 as well as the university’s progress on the 2018 task force recommendations and priorities.
The university also conducted a 'Climate Review of the Department of English,' that involved students, alumni, faculty and staff. The results of that review will be released shortly. It also adopted guidelines regarding consensual romantic or sexual relationships between students and faculty and staff. That issue has long been a point of contention for many who consider the power differential in those relationships too great to allow for any meaningful consent to take place.
Bill 151 also stipulates that all Quebec universities will have to divulge the number and type of sanctions imposed in their annual report by 2019-2020, without revealing the identity of the employee.
Manon Bergeron, a professor at UQAM conducted a study in 2016 that revealed almost all students (93 per cent) who were victims of sexual aggression did not notify their school administration. “The results of these investigations should not only be communicated to the victims, but to the entire university community if they are to have any dissuasive effect,” she said in a Journal de Montréal article.
Essentially, what worries advocates is that while an impressive checkbox has now been created for all Quebec universities, the question remains: will it be used effectively, or will it simply allow administrators the appearance of doing something while doing very little? Even with so many new promising guidelines in place, the lack of transparency inspires continued distrust and disappointment in the process.
Desperate need for more transparency
“I want to see a transparent process," says Kaslik. "One that isn’t punitive, where we don’t have to chase people for information. The fact that I only learned that he had been exonerated via an email from my contact… This is systemically discouraging. It feels like gaslighting. To have a process with nothing but our statements, without us even being there. It’s positively Kafkaesque.”
Downey says that the standing committee has highlighted the need to ensure people are informed and feel supported through the complaint process and intends to create a guide to make the process more clearly understood from the beginning.
Kaslik has stated on her Facebook page that she had many excellent male professors who inspired and supported her at Concordia where she received a quality education that helped her become the writer and teacher that she is today. But she also has little patience at this point for provincial and occupational laws that prevent disclosure of the outcome of an investigation and sanctions.
“They keep talking about privacy issues, about the privacy of their employees,” she says. “What about our privacy, our education? He was a man in his sixties at the time and we were in our twenties. We wanted an acknowledgment, an apology and we wanted him let go. The university could have done all that graciously. Instead we got this stonewalling… They asked us to come forward and so we did. But why bother asking us if they’re not going to hear us and do anything about it? We are credible, professional women. Why would we lie and make this up? I have a young child, a career, a life. This has been an exhausting process.”
As Kaslik and the other complainants think about what step to take next, she remains optimistic despite the bitterness. “Hopefully, it hasn’t been all for nought."
“What’s devastating to me is that now I’m talking about the failure of this process,” she says. “Meanwhile, that’s not what the point of any of this was about and a sexual predator of forty years gets lost in the confusion.”