Concordia launches investigation into alleged sexual misconduct, president denies prior knowledge

Concordia University president Alan Shepard says the university is launching a multi-pronged response to allegations of sexual misconduct in the English department's creative writing program.

Two alumni published essays describing predatory behaviour in university's creative writing program

Concordia University president Alan Shepard says the university is not trying to 'sweep anything under the rug' after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced Monday regarding the school's creative writing program. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Concordia University is promising decisive action after the publication of an essay alleging widespread sexual misconduct in the university's creative writing program, but two alumni say more should have been done sooner.

University President Alan Shepard spoke publicly on the subject for the first time Wednesday, vowing to investigate allegations raised in an essay by former student Mike Spry.

Spry's post, which went online early Monday, refers to professors routinely harassing, abusing and inappropriately dating students, as well as "drunken nights of misbehaviour" that Spry said were commonplace over his 14-year association with the university.

The university also said a task force will be formed and a university-wide assessment of Concordia's environment will be launched, with an emphasis on preventing sexual harassment.

"We're not trying to sweep anything under the rug. That's not my style, for people who know me," Shepard said.

Essay alleging misconduct published in 2014

Shepard denied ever hearing rumours of wrongdoing in the creative writing department.

"I've been reading it's an open secret," said Shepard. "But it's not an open secret to me, and I do my best to pay attention to these kinds of rumours."

But Spry and Emma Healey, another writer who attended the program, are casting doubts on Shepard's account. 

Healey wrote an essay for in 2014 detailing her history of dating a professor in the creative writing department. Though she says her romantic relationship was consensual, she says it was marred by an imbalance of power.

"It grew out of a power dynamic I really feel he exploited," she said.

Writer Emma Healey wrote about her experience in the Concordia creative writing department in 2014. In it, she describes a romantic relationship with a professor much older than her. (Submitted by Emma Healey)

She says the piece she wrote for The Hairpin resonated with other graduates of the Concordia creative writing program, some of whom messaged her to share their stories.

She finds it difficult to believe that Shepard, who has been president of Concordia since 2012, never heard rumours of inappropriate behaviour between professors and students in the department.

"I think it's completely ridiculous," she said. "I understand why he would feel the need to say it because it covers him, I guess, and the university, but I don't believe it."

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Spry named a professor involved in some of this alleged misconduct. CBC News is choosing not to publish that name until the allegations are corroborated.

He also finds it difficult to believe the rumours never made their way up to the president's office.

"I can't imagine (Shepard) hadn't heard the whispers. If he hadn't, I can't imagine he's very good at his job," said Spry. "You can't find anyone associated with Concordia over the past three decades who didn't know."

He said the university should've stopped and paid attention following Healey's essay on the same subject, and says the allegations of harassment and abuse are systemic and larger than one individual professor.

On Wednesday, Concordia University further outlined its reaction to sexual misconduct allegations that appeared in a blog post written by a former student earlier in the week. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

'Historical practices'

Shepard said the university has been working on a new policy related to relationships between students and faculty members. It would build on Concordia's current conflict of interest policy, which says any such relationships be disclosed to the university.

"Many institutions large and small, public and private, are grappling with, often, historical practices and misconduct they are trying to apologize for. Trying to fix. Trying to change the climate so we don't have any sexual coercion, sexual harassment of people in our community," Shepard said. 

The university initially issued an online statement Monday, which referred to the blog post alleging the program has been a predatory environment for female students.

"I am disturbed by what I read in the blog post. These allegations are serious and will be treated seriously," Shepard said in Monday's statement.

Mike Spry wrote an essay titled "Toxic Masculinity, Concordia, and CanLit," in which he alleges sexual misconduct within the Concordia creative writing department. He was affiliated with the department for more than a decade. (Submitted by Mike Spry)

Since Spry's blog post went online, some members of Montreal's writing community have come forward to tell stories of their experiences in the department.

Among them is award-winning author Heather O'Neill, who told CBC News she was sexually harassed by a Concordia creative writing professor in the 1990s.