Montreal

Climate of mistrust, favouritism and sexual misconduct in Concordia English department, report finds

The independent "climate review" was commissioned by Concordia University in response to complaints of sexual misconduct in the creative writing program of its English department.

Independent report based on interviews, online responses from 100 students, alumni, faculty and staff

An independent report released by Concordia University Thursday concludes there's a perception that 'the climate of the Department of English was unhealthy and that departmental culture and practices did not promote healthy relationships.' (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

An independent "climate review" commissioned by Concordia University in response to complaints of sexual misconduct in the English department's creative writing program outlines allegations of inappropriate relationships, academic favouritism and sexual misconduct, and concludes there is generalized mistrust of the complaints process.

The report, prepared by retired Quebec Court of Appeal justice Pierrette Rayle and an independent consulting firm, was based on interviews and an online survey of current students, alumni, faculty and staff — more than 100 people, in all.

"Respondents had the perception that the climate of the Department of English was unhealthy and that departmental culture and practices did not promote healthy relationships," the report said.

It said sexual violence was most often reported in situations where faculty members held classes in bars, consuming alcohol or drugs with students and sometimes inciting other students to participate.

"Some students reported that these situations have, on occasion, led to sexual misconduct being committed, to inappropriate fraternizing or to professional and personal boundaries being blurred," the report said.

It said that such incidents were discussed in the department's "whisper network."

"The existence of the whisper network underlines the lack of trust that certain students have in the University's handling of these matters," the report said.

When Concordia first launched various investigations into sexual misconduct in January 2018, President Alan Shepard, who teaches in the department, said he had never heard such allegations.

Concordia president Alan Shepard, who teaches in the English department, said last year he was unaware of previous allegations of sexual misconduct in the department. The report released today said there was a 'solidly rooted whisper network' about incidents of misconduct within the department. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

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

Sexual favours, disrespectful comments

The report described a perception that some faculty members wielded power inappropriately, exercising favouritism when it came to students being published, nominated for awards or offered internships.

"Some alumni reported having been offered access to influential third parties in exchange for, or in expectation of sexual favours," the report said. 

The report also found many students who participated in the survey felt inappropriate behaviour extended to the classroom.

"These behaviours were perceived by students as insensitive or discriminating (students feeling that they were not heard, yelling at or berating students in class or mocking their work, using offensive or racist language or marginalizing issues related to sexual or gender identity)," the report said.

It described a continuum of misconduct, ranging from disrespectful comments to sexual violence.

Mistrust in complaints process

The report also found mistrust in the university's ability to handle complaints.

"For many participants, this mistrust originates from a perceived inaction on the part of the University and the fact that the University appears only to have taken concrete steps to address certain misbehaviours once certain allegations became public," the report said.

"There is also a perception shared by others who believe that the University knew or ought to have known about these alleged inappropriate behaviours for a significant period of time."

"This could explain why students go on social media to voice their concerns instead of using official channels."

Note of caution

The report did issue a caution, noting that the results of the survey only represent the views and perceptions of a small number of participants.

"This limits the ability of the authors of this report to generalize our findings with respect to the individuals who did not participate in the Climate Review," it said.

"However, we were still able to assess the climate of the Department of English and make recommendations."

"It must be noted that there were a significant number of respondents who spoke favourably about their experiences in the Department of English and about faculty members who had a profoundly positive impact upon their experience at the University."

Ban on professor-student relationships?

Bill 151, legislation enacted in 2018 to fight sexual violence in higher education, requires professors to disclose romantic or sexual relationships with students.

The report said it would prefer such relationships were banned outright.

"We believe that, even when the conflict of interest can be adequately managed, there is no place for any romantic or sexual relationship between an instructor and his or her student," it said.

"The potential for abuse or seriously damaging misunderstandings are far too frequent and serious."

The legislation prohibits universities from informing students of the outcomes of complaints they file, which the report's authors see as a shortcoming.

"We understand that students and complainants feel frustrated when they are not provided with all of the information following the conclusion of a complaint or an investigation," the report said.

The authors said they regret that legislators "did not go so far as to relieve universities from their obligations of privacy and confidentiality regarding employment matters following allegations of sexual violence."

When CBC reported last month on the case of two complainants who were never informed of the outcome of their investigation, a spokesperson for Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, Francis Bouchard, seemed to share this view.

"We believe it is natural for an institution that has investigated a harassment complaint against a member of its staff to report the results of the complaint to the person who originally filed the complaint," Bouchard said in an email to CBC.

"Such complaints should be treated with as much transparency as possible."

Concordia spokesperson Fiona Downey told CBC at that time that the university reached out to the ministry to clarify that it handled the case correctly.

"We have been in touch to say, 'Hang on a second, is there something off with what we are doing?"' Downey said.

"And they said, 'Oh no, no.'"

Roberge has since refused requests for an interview on the matter.

Recommendations

The report makes several recommendations, including:

  • ensuring staff and students are made aware of values of civility, equity, respect, nondiscrimination and appreciation of diversity.
  • more training for faculty members on relationships and power dynamics.
  • awareness campaigns for students on complaint procedures.
  • assigning a contact person for complainants involved in ongoing investigations, in order to share information and answer questions regarding processes.
  • establishing a selection process for publication opportunities, writing awards, employment opportunities and internships with mixed juries or blind selection of works, to reduce perception of favouritism.
  • prohibiting classes held in bars and creating explicit guidelines to set out conditions under which classes can be taught outside of the university's premises.
  • another climate review in two years. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Rukavina

Journalist

Steve Rukavina has been with CBC News in Montreal since 2002. In 2019, he won a RTDNA award for continuing coverage of sexual misconduct allegations at Concordia University. He's also a co-creator of the podcast, Montreapolis. Before working in Montreal he worked as a reporter for CBC in Regina and Saskatoon. You can reach him at stephen.j.rukavina@cbc.ca.

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