Nfld. & Labrador

Rape question baffles computer science students

Computer programming instructor John Shieh asked some of his students to develop a software program to determine if a rape victim would kill herself.

Complaints filed over Memorial University instructor's assignment for computer science students

Strange question

9 years ago
Duration 3:50
Science Dean Mark Abrahams give MUN's reaction to a computer science question asking about rape

Most university students are used to working through tough assignments, but administrators at Memorial University in St. John's are raising concerns over one that has many feeling uncomfortable. 

Computer programming instructor John Shieh asked some of his students to develop a software program to determine if a rape victim would kill herself.

Student union rep Candace Simms was upset by a question on a computer science assignment. (CBC)
The question left many students confused, and the university's students union, computer science department and sexual harassment office have all received complaints. 

"I was pretty appalled," said Candace Simms, executive director of external affairs at Memorial University's students union.

"I think it's pretty disgusting and disrespectful, the way this question was posed to students as part of an assignment, and that's reflective of what we've been hearing from students who are in that class." 

The dean of the science faculty has also heard those concerns and agrees the assignment was disrespectful.

"I was very disappointed when I saw it. What I saw in that assignment is precisely what Memorial University is not about," said Mark Abrahams.

Students were asked to consider what should happen to a fictional student named Heather, particularly whether she has the will to live after being ridiculed online.

Computer science students at Memorial university in St. John's were asked to solve a problem involving a rape victim and suicide.
"You wonder why this example, in particular, was used — an example of rape and a victim. It's pretty irresponsible of the instructor and definitely insensitive when you think about how many students this is impacting," said Simms.

Simms said Shieh's students deserve an apology, and the instructor should receive training around why the assignment was inappropriate.

"I think this illustrates why having mandatory sessions on sexual harassment is probably a good idea for faculty and staff," said Simms.

"It's clear that something hasn't been communicated to this individual, and we don't want to see students put in this type of a situation again."

Shieh, whose research specialties include artificial intelligence, has not responded to CBC News' requests for an interview. 

Abrahams said the university is currently investigating.