Mcgill pro­fes­sor pub­licly ac­cused of sex­ual vi­o­lence

Case re­veals in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers to ac­count­abil­ity for sex­ual vi­o­lence at Mcgill

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - Ma­rina Cupido The Mcgill Daily

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion has emerged re­gard­ing the on­go­ing case of an Is­lamic Stud­ies pro­fes­sor pub­licly ac­cused of sex­ual vi­o­lence. More stu­dents have spo­ken out con­demn­ing both his be­hav­iour and the lack of a ro­bust in­sti­tu­tional re­sponse, as the sit­u­a­tion feeds mount­ing crit­i­cism of Mcgill’s sex­ual vi­o­lence pol­icy.

Al­le­ga­tions of abuse

Roughly a month ago, stick­ers be­gan ap­pear­ing in wash­rooms across cam­pus, al­leg­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence per­pe­trated by a cer­tain pro­fes­sor in Mcgill’s In­sti­tute of Is­lamic Stud­ies, whom they ex­plic­itly named. Not­ing that the pro­fes­sor is up for ten­ure this se­mes­ter, the stick­ers urged stu­dents to send tes­ti­monies of abu­sive be­hav­iour on the part of fac­ulty and staff to ze­ro­tol­er­[email protected]

The pro­fes­sor in ques­tion agreed to make a state­ment to The Daily, on the con­di­tion that his name would not ap­pear any­where in our cov­er­age. Af­ter con­sul­ta­tion with af­fected par­ties, The Daily de­cided to com­ply with his re­quest. In his state­ment, he called the al­le­ga­tions against him “cat­e­gor­i­cally un­true,” adding, “I am deeply com­mit­ted to do­ing my part to make ev­ery stu­dent feel safe in my class­room and on Mcgill’s cam­pus.” He has not re­sponded to fur­ther re­quests for com­ment from The Daily.

This pro­fes­sor, whose be­hav­iour was de­scribed as “preda­tory” by a for­mer stu­dent in a state­ment to The Daily, was the sub­ject of an open let­ter sent to Robert Wis­novsky, Di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Is­lamic Stud­ies, dur­ing the Win­ter 2017 se­mes­ter. Writ­ten by the 2016-2017 ex­ec­u­tive team of the World Is­lamic and Mid­dle East Stud­ies Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion (WIMESSA), the let­ter was signed by roughly fifty other stu­dents at the In­sti­tute. It ac­cused the In­sti­tute of fail­ing to take the sit­u­a­tion se­ri­ously, stat­ing that the pro­fes­sor had re­peat­edly “vi­o­lated [the] stu­dent-pro­fes­sor con­tract” through his abu­sive be­hav­iour.

In­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers to ac­count­abil­ity

Fol­low­ing an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The Daily on Oc­to­ber 2, which re­ported the above facts, this year’s WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tive team posted a state­ment on Face­book. While re­frain­ing from nam­ing the pro­fes­sor con­cerned, they ex­pressed sol­i­dar­ity with their con­stituents, and frus­tra­tion at the in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers which ef­fec­tively shield the pro­fes­sor from pub­lic scru­tiny.

“We have taken steps to con­sult for­mer ex­ec­u­tives, speak with le­gal ex­perts, and meet with In­sti­tute ad­min­is­tra­tors to dis­cuss what ac­tions we can take as stu­dents and stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to help ad­dress this on­go­ing sit­u­a­tion,” read WIMESSA’S state­ment. “What we have been con­sis­tently met with, how­ever, is nondis­clo­sure agree­ments and red tape.”

The state­ment also claimed that con­sent train­ing had been pro­vided for the In­sti­tute’s fac­ulty in Septem­ber. How­ever, when The Daily tried to find out more, we drew a blank: Wis­novsky did not re­spond to re­quests for more in­for­ma­tion, and the Mcgill ad­min­is­tra­tion was un­able to pro­vide de­tails, or even con­firm that such train­ing oc­curred. Isabelle Oke, VP Univer­sity Af­fairs of the Stu­dents’ So­ci­ety of Mcgill Univer­sity (SSMU), said that she hadn’t been in­formed of the train­ing ei­ther, and that such a thing would be highly un­usual within the Mcgill con­text.

“This sit­u­a­tion is def­i­nitely an anom­aly,” Oke told The Daily. “There aren’t any other fac­ul­ties that I know of that have this train­ing, and if ever a fac­ulty is of­fered a train­ing work­shop, it is vol­un­tary.”

The Daily spoke with the WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tive team to clar­ify the sit­u­a­tion, but they too proved un­able to pro­vide fur­ther de­tails. In essence, it emerged that an ad­min­is­tra­tor had sug­gested to the ex­ec­u­tives that con­sent train­ing would oc­cur at some point in Au­gust or Septem­ber, with­out let­ting them know whether the train­ing would be manda­tory, who would fa­cil­i­tate it, what ma­te­rial it would cover, and when ex­actly it would oc­cur. At the time of pub­li­ca­tion, The Daily has not re­ceived clar­i­fi­ca­tion from Wis­novsky or from any other de­part­men­tal ad­min­is­tra­tor on any of these points.

Roughly two weeks ago, mean­while, as the In­sti­tute reeled from the im­pact of the al­le­ga­tions on its com­mu­nity, WIMESSA’S for­mer VP Fi­nance Sarah Shamy re­signed from her po­si­tion. In an in­ter­view with The Daily, Shamy ex­plained that her res­ig­na­tion had been largely a prod­uct of frus­tra­tion over the han­dling of this pro­fes­sor’s be­hav­iour, both by the rest of the WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tive and by the In­sti­tute.

“I be­lieve the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fusal to ad­dress the is­sue di­rectly and their lack of trans­parency has in­spired fear among the [WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tives],” she said. “The way they see it is [...] ‘if up­per ad­min­is­tra­tion, peo­ple whose main duty and re­spon­si­bil­ity is to ad­dress stu­dents’ con­cerns, aren’t en­gag­ing in any thor­ough and ef­fec­tive ac­tions, then why does the bur­den fall on us?’”

Re­gard­ing the In­sti­tute’s ac­tions, Shamy was sharply crit­i­cal.

“The In­sti­tute will only care in­so­far as their rep­u­ta­tion is at stake,” she said. “As far as I know, in past years [...] the In­sti­tute did not re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately [to com­plaints about the pro­fes­sor in ques­tion]. I would not even be able to char­ac­ter­ize their ef­forts as min­i­mal or in­ef­fec­tive be­cause that would im­ply the pres­ence of ef­forts when there are none. A few years ago, what we had was a pro­fes­sor who used his po­si­tion of power in or­der to per­pet­u­ate abu­sive be­hav­iour. To­day, we still have the same pro­fes­sor who uses his po­si­tion of power in or­der to per­pet­u­ate abu­sive be­hav­iour. That is all that needs to be known.”

One fac­tor in this per­ceived in­ac­tion on the part of Mcgill and the In­sti­tute is that the pro­fes­sor con­cerned has never been the sub­ject of a for­mal com­plaint lodged through the Univer­sity’s Of­fice for Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Re­sponse, Sup­port, and Ed­u­ca­tion. He has, how­ever, re­port­edly been the sub­ject of al­le­ga­tions brought to In­sti­tute ad­min­is­tra­tors by at least one stu­dent.

Given that the pro­fes­sor in ques­tion will be con­sid­ered for ten­ure this se­mes­ter, The Daily reached out to Mcgill’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to find out how stu­dents can par­tic­i­pate in the ten­ure process. Ac­cord­ing to An­gela Camp­bell, Deputy Provost (Poli­cies, Pro­ce­dures, and Eq­uity), “stu­dent in­put usu­ally finds its way into the ten­ure dossier through teach­ing/course eval­u­a­tions, which are in­cluded as part of the teach­ing port­fo­lio.” Dis­ci­plinary ac­tions taken against a given pro­fes­sor are also in­cluded in their ten­ure dossier, but “dis­ci­plinary in­ves­ti­ga­tions and sanc­tions are only pos­si­ble through re­ports of mis­con­duct which, by def­i­ni­tion, can­not be anony­mous.”

In short, there is no way for stu­dents’ al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual vi­o­lence to be in­cluded in a pro­fes­sor’s ten­ure dossier if they re­main anony­mous. This serves as a de­ter­rent for many, who opt to re­main silent rather than face po­ten­tial reprisals should they put their names to ac­cu­sa­tions of abuse.

A long-term prob­lem

In the course of The Daily’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into this sit­u­a­tion, in ad­di­tion to re­ceiv­ing first-hand ac­counts of the pro­fes­sor’s preda­tory be­hav­iour, we also heard from sev­eral stu­dents who were un­sur­prised by the pub­lic al­le­ga­tions against him.

“I have known about [these al­le­ga­tions] for years and have man­aged to avoid tak­ing a course with [the pro­fes­sor con­cerned], but most stu­dents do not have this in­for­ma­tion,” said Chantelle Schultz, a U3 WIMES and East Asian Stud­ies stu­dent and for­mer edi­tor at The Daily. “Is this pro­fes­sor’s rep­u­ta­tion and ca­reer more im­por­tant to the ad­min­is­tra­tion than the safety of the young women who have made com­plaints? The fact that our univer­sity still has no pol­icy stop­ping pro­fes­sors from hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with their stu­dents is not an ac­ci­dent.”

In­deed, Mcgill’s re­cently cre­ated Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Pol­icy does not ad­dress pro­fes­sor-stu­dent re­la­tion­ships specif­i­cally; a stu­dent could use it to file a com­plaint of sex­ual vi­o­lence against a pro­fes­sor should they wish to, but it does not de­fine stu­dent-pro­fes­sor re­la­tion­ships as in­her­ently non-con­sen­sual due to the in­evitable im­bal­ance of power be­tween the two par­ties in­volved. Mcgill’s Con­flict of In­ter­est Pol­icy does rec­og­nize such re­la­tion­ships as con­sti­tut­ing a con­flict of in­ter­est, but it doesn’t ac­knowl­edge them as non­con­sen­sual and harm­ful, or set out any mean­ing­ful con­se­quences for pro­fes­sors who en­gage in them.

Niy­ousha Bas­tani, a for­mer WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tive and edi­tor at The Daily, ex­plained that stu­dents within the In­sti­tute had been speak­ing out about this par­tic­u­lar pro­fes­sor for years. “To my knowl­edge, WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tives were rais­ing these con­cerns with the de­part­ment as far back as the fall se­mes­ter of 2015,” she said. “The Univer­sity didn’t call for a meet­ing with WIMES stu­dents to ad­dress our very real con­cerns about safety un­til the very last day of ex­ams in the April 2017.”

The meet­ing in ques­tion was ad­ver­tised to all stu­dents within the In­sti­tute, and led by Camp­bell. She re­port­edly re­frained from re­fer­ring to the pro­fes­sor in­volved or specifics of his case, only cit­ing Mcgill pol­icy in gen­eral terms.

“How are WIMES stu­dents sup­posed to trust the Univer­sity when they are con­stantly pushed to se­crecy, re­peat­edly re­minded that nam­ing the ac­cused pro­fes­sor can be li­belous?” con­tin­ued Bas­tani. “When they can only look out for each other through in­for­mal chan­nels?”

Mov­ing for­ward

Ac­cord­ing to the cur­rent WIMESSA ex­ec­u­tive team, their main goal for the mo­ment is to or­ga­nize an event at which stu­dents from the In­sti­tute will be able to voice their con­cerns in an open and hon­est di­a­logue with ad­min­is­tra­tors. Such an event would stand in con­trast to the April 2017 meet­ing with An­gela Camp­bell, which left stu­dents feel­ing frus­trated and si­lenced.

“Ba­si­cally we’re plan­ning an open fo­rum [...] where stu­dents can di­rectly com­mu­ni­cate their thoughts to the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said a mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive, “be­cause from what we’ve seen, peo­ple have been voic­ing those con­cerns and there hasn’t been a re­sponse from the in­sti­tu­tion.”

The Daily also reached out to Zero Tol­er­ance, the anony­mous group of stu­dents car­ry­ing out the stick­er­ing cam­paign which drew pub­lic aware­ness to this sit­u­a­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the email we re­ceived in re­ply, Zero Tol­er­ance is run by stu­dents from out­side the WIMES pro­gram who wish to “stand in sol­i­dar­ity with [their] peers in the In­sti­tute.”

“For over two years, stu­dents in the Is­lamic Stud­ies de­part­ment ( pri­mar­ily women of colour) have been try­ing to get Mcgill’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to hold [ this pro­fes­sor] ac­count­able for his unac­cept­able be­hav­iour to­ward his stu­dents,” wrote Zero Tol­er­ance. “We are call­ing on stu­dents to raise their con­cerns with [this pro­fes­sor] to the head of Is­lamic Stud­ies Robert Wis­novsky, and the Dean of Arts, An­to­nia Maioni by email, phone, and in per­son.”

In their email to The Daily, Zero Tol­er­ance con­firmed that they have re­ceived sev­eral stu­dent tes­ti­monies of abu­sive be­hav­iour from fac­ulty since be­gin­ning their cam­paign. They also in­cluded an un­com­pro­mis­ing mes­sage for all Mcgill pro­fes­sors who en­gage in preda­tory be­hav­iour to­wards their stu­dents: “We know your names. We are com­ing for you.”

“The In­sti­tute will only care in­so­far as their rep­u­ta­tion is at stake.” —Sarah Shamy, for­mer WIMESSA VP Fi­nance

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