McGill students file a complaint to the Ministry of Education over administration’s handling of professor sexual misconduct

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

McGill University students are taking their fight against the administrations mishandling of professor sexual misconduct complaint to the government. 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 administreation 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 comes after the SSMU published an open letter, the students staged as walkout, and they held a town gall meeting closed to the public and media.

Bill 151 requires “higher education institutions must, before 1 January 2019, adopt a policy to prevent and fight sexual violence” and should “specifies the procedure for developing, disseminating and reviewing the policy and requires institutions to report on its application in accordance with stated parameters.” McGill revised their sexual violence policy in 2016, it dealt primarily with students, with only one line devoted to professor-student relationships, agreeing they are not consensual. The policy also failed to address the procedure after filing a complaint. Labor laws in Quebec, prohibit the publication of the procedures, and what the administration does to professors after a complaint is filed remain shrouded in mystery, with students never finding out the results.

The letter requests of Minister David to launch an “external investigation on the handling of complaints against academic staff by the Dean’s office over the last five years.” The student's societies discussed their concerns over universities being “accountable” for Bill 151. They recount, “[d]uring the consultations on Bill 151, we expressed our concern: without accountability mechanisms supported by your cabinet, we have no way of ensuring that our institutions respect their own policies, or the law itself.”

The SSMU sand PGSS asked Minister David impose Chapter IV of the Bill on “Surveillance and Accompanying Measures” on McGill's administration. The chapter reads, “the Minister’s Office has the ability to impose surveillance and monitoring measures…on institutions that do not enforce the provisions of Bill 151.”

The student societies also claim as a result of McGill not upholding the bill, their ministry should uphold, Section 17 of Chapter 4. The section states, “If an educational institution fails to comply with its obligations under this Act, the Minister may, at the institution’s expense, cause those obligations to be performed by a person the Minister designates.” The students want someone else to take over managing and conducting investigations into sexual violence at the university. This is consistent with their demands for an external investigation.

The letter also let the Minister of Higher Education know that the leaders of student government are ready to discuss the problems at McGill further as are the students. SSMU and PGSS expressed, “We are ready to meet you in person to discuss this problem in more detail, and we encourage you to put the voices of students and survivors of sexual abuse at the heart of all discussions about violence on campus.”

SSMU and PGSS added as an attachment the open letter 148 professors signed and sent to the administration on Monday, April 16, 2018. The 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.

SSMU Vice President External Affairs Connor Spencer spoke with two of the university’s media, radio station CKUT and the independent paper the McGill Daily, telling them that they reiterated their problems with McGill's policy during Bill 151’s drafting, and it was not working. Connor also indicated that there is a “misconception that once we have a policy all the sexual violence goes away.”

Spencer pointed out there is more than what the professors have done, there are the ramifications. Spencer recounted, “I get upset a little bit when the first question [from the media] is always ‘what specifically did they do’ and the sensationalization […] around that. We need to focus on the fact that there […] are complaints processes that are supposed to help folks but instead are retraumatizing them and leaving them abandoned […] I’ve just lost too many friends to this complaint system now […] I know so many people who have dropped out or like stopped their academic careers completely […] because they could not come to this campus anymore. […] I just really don’t want that to keep happening.”

Last 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).

Two 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 want an investigation conducted by a third-party investigation into the method McGill deals with complaints. They want 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 wants the findings by this June. They are 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.

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.