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Skepticism, muted hope greet report on climate of mistrust, sexual misconduct in Concordia English department

A critical report that details the allegations that have rocked Concordia University's English department — and makes recommendations on how to move forward — has left at least one department alumna dubious that "the culture of misconduct and abuse" will change.

'We've been dedicated to improving our processes,' says head of university's sexual violence task force

Lisa Ostiguy, special advisor to the provost on campus life at Concordia, said she'd welcome further discussion on discouraging relationships between students and teachers, but 'it's very difficult to prohibit relationships' between consenting adults. (CBC)

A critical report that details allegations of sexual misconduct in Concordia University's English department — and makes recommendations on how to move forward — has left at least one department alumna dubious that "the culture of misconduct and abuse" will change.

"I remain skeptical of Concordia's investment in actually making and enforcing these types of systemic changes once the spotlight is turned off," said Emma Healey, a writer who detailed her own history of dating a Concordia professor much older than her in a 2014 online essay.

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

The independent "climate review," commissioned by Concordia University and released Thursday, came in response to complaints of sexual misconduct in the English department's creative writing program.

It outlines allegations of inappropriate fraternizing, blurred professional and personal boundaries, academic favouritism and sexual violence, and it concludes there is a general mistrust of the complaints process.

The investigation into the cultural climate was one of the measures the university administration promised to take when it said it would "treat seriously" allegations made in a blog post of professors routinely harassing, abusing and inappropriately dating students.

The "sharp increase in public scrutiny ... will almost certainly fade away once the final investigation has been completed," Healey said, calling the problems at Concordia "structurally ingrained and decades old."

"It will take real time and a great deal of concerted effort to change them," she said. "I hope the school feels real pressure to put that work in, but I have no reason to trust that they actually will."

Concordia University posted an update on its efforts "to promote a safe and respectful learning environment" to its website Thursday. 

University President Alan Shepard writes that a review of the Department of English led to numerous recommendations.

"Going forward, we will continue to engage the department in building a healthier culture, promoting new initiatives that will benefit the entire Concordia community as well," Shepard said.

Bill 151 doesn't go far enough: report

Connor Spencer, a former McGill student who now works for Students for Consent Culture Canada, has been working with several universities, including Concordia, on developing sexual misconduct policies.

"History has shown that unless students are holding them accountable, institutions have rarely moved forward on this issue of their own free will," said Spencer. "Students' mistrust of institutions comes from a very long and real history."

She says it's now up to Concordia to choose to break away from that history — and she is hopeful that climate surveys such as this can have an impact.

Connor Spencer, a former McGill student who now works for Students for Consent Canada, has been working with several universities including Concordia on developing sexual misconduct policies. (Leah Hendry/CBC)

She agrees, however, with the authors of the report — retired Quebec Court of Appeal justice Pierrette Rayle and an independent consulting firm — that in order to help institutions make real change, the province needs to strengthen Bill 151, its 2018 legislation that combats sexual violence in higher education.

That law requires professors to disclose romantic or sexual relationships with students — but the report said it would be better if such relationships were banned outright.

Since professors are employed by their institution, not by the province, it's difficult to incorporate such a ban into legislation, Spencer acknowledged.

"I think this is a common misunderstanding that institutions exploit by saying they can't [ban teacher-student relationships] if it's only something the province can do," Spencer said.

How to ban consenting relationships?

"It's very difficult to prohibit relationships between adults that are consenting," said Lisa Ostiguy, a senior administrator at Concordia and head of its sexual violence task force. "All universities in Canada struggle with the legal framework."

Ostiguy said the university discourages relationships between students and teachers, and she would welcome further discussion on the issue with government.

The report also noted that Bill 151 prohibits universities from informing students of the outcome of complaints they file.

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."

Ostiguy said those privacy obligations present the university with incredible challenges.

"I can understand why people don't trust the system because they don't hear the outcomes of investigations," she said.

The recommendations in the report are all feasible at the university level, Ostiguy said.

"I wish I could go back in time and fix how things were handled years ago," she said.

"I can say that in the last six years, we've been dedicated to improving our processes."

The Education Ministry said it wants to review the report before commenting further.

Concordia's willingness to acknowledge there is a problem is a step in the right direction, Spencer said.

"At Concordia, there's an awareness that there's a problem but there isn't a commitment to specific, directed, student-led tactics as to how this problem should be dealt with," she said.

"There's still a lack of understanding of the nuances of the issue."

With files from Steve Rukavina

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