Concordia University vows to probe 'disturbing' allegations of sexual misconduct

Concordia University will "treat seriously" allegations of sexual misconduct and of an abusive climate in its English department, according to president Alan Shepard, following accusations made by a former student of the Montreal school's creative writing program.

School will 'treat seriously' blog alleging abusive climate, president says

Concordia University President Alan Shepard, seen here last summer, issued a statement on the university's website late Monday vowing to 'treat seriously' allegations of sexual misconduct and of an abusive climate in the English department's creative writing program. (CBC)

Concordia University will "treat seriously" allegations of sexual misconduct and an abusive climate in its English department, according to president Alan Shepard, following accusations by a former student of the Montreal school's creative writing program. 

In a message posted to the university's website on Monday, Shepard said he became aware of a blog post earlier that day that made specific allegations against unnamed faculty members, as well as "general allegations of an abusive climate in the department's well-known program in creative writing."

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

'Drunken nights of misbehaviour'

The blog post was written by Mike Spry, a former creative-writing student who later worked with and befriended professors in the department.

The post does not name anyone, but 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.

Spry said one professor he knew "rented a hotel room at a Montreal literary festival so that he could entertain young writers away from his house and family."

He said another would brag openly about dating or sleeping with students.

"He would attempt to manipulate by buying them drinks, using the pretext of wanting to discuss their craft, overwhelming them with alcohol and smarm, promise them publication and praise, offer them mentorship," Spry wrote.

"If they eschewed his advances he would denigrate them and their writing," he continued.

Spry also admitted in the post that he personally dated women who were much younger than he was and treated them poorly.

CBC News contacted Spry and, in an email, he said he wasn't ready to give an interview yet.  

CBC News has not independently verified any of his specific allegations.

Concordia has taken several steps to improve its environment in recent years, Shepard said Monday, adding those efforts remain 'a work in progress.' (Concordia University)

'Work in progress'

Shepard said the university has, over the past several years "taken several steps… to strengthen the safety of its learning and working environment." He added this was "a work in progress."

Shepard said some of these efforts were public, but added: "At times, dealing with the confidentiality of complainants and respondents, by law our responses cannot be made public, even when progress is certainly being made."

Concordia spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr told CBC News on Monday the university wouldn't be giving interviews at this time. 

She also couldn't confirm if any professors had been suspended or shifted out of teaching positions.

"For confidentiality and privacy reasons, we can't comment on any specific matter regarding our faculty members or staff," Barr said.

Award-winning author Heather O'Neill told CBC News she was sexually harassed by a Concordia creative writing professor in the 1990s. (CBC News)

'Everybody knows'

Award-winning Montreal novelist Heather O'Neill was a student in Concordia's creative writing program in the 1990s.

O'Neill told CBC News on Tuesday that Spry's allegations painted an accurate picture of the climate in the program at that time.

"He did encapsulate the pervasiveness of what's been happening at Concordia and how acceptable it is within the creative writing program," O'Neill said.

"Everybody knows. Everybody who attends there is aware of this culture," she said.

O'Neill said it's unfortunate that it took allegations from a man to get the university to respond.

'It was so inappropriate'

O'Neill said she herself was harassed during her time at Concordia by a professor in his 50s who approached her about publishing some of her poetry.

"It became a sort of year-long process of rejecting his sexual advances. The entire editorial process was just riddled with him trying to sleep with me," she said.

"It was so inappropriate, and it made me feel so much doubt about the entire process of publishing that book," she said.

O'Neill said she never reported the harassment.

"It just wasn't done at the time. Reporting it — you felt like it might ruin your career, and you might never have a chance at publication."

'Open secret for 20 years'

Stephen Henighan, a writer and professor at University of Guelph, studied in Concordia's creative writing program in the 1980s and taught there in the 1990s.

He said he also agreed with Spry's characterization of the toxic environment within the program.

"This had almost become a departmental culture — that female students were expected to make themselves sexually available in order to get the recommendation letter they needed," Henighan said.

Henighan said he also read Shepard's response.

"I'm pretty surprised he didn't know about this until yesterday. It's an open secret. It's been an open secret for 20 years."

In a new statement from Concordia on Tuesday evening, Barr said "as for timing of the president's decision to issue a statement, I can assure you he spoke as soon as he was made aware of the allegations."

"His concern for a safe environment at Concordia has been a priority since he began his presidency," she said.

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About the Author

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.