André Costopoulos’ response (“Resources available to deal with sexual harassment and abuse of power,” September 8, Commentary, page 11) to a student’s allegation of sexual harassment against her professor (“Let’s talk about teacher,” September 1, Features, page 11) is hardly surprising. Trivializing sexual assault as an “unwelcome or difficult situation,” the Dean of Students coldly presents us with policy options that do little more than create paper trails.
While seeking professional help can be extremely important to address the physical and emotional harm inflicted on victims of abuse, such measures are insufficient as long as perpetrators of violence are met with impunity. McGill’s administration is in the habit of responding hesitantly, if at all, to allegations of abuses of power. In the rare cases where students come out of anonymity and offer up the names of their abusers, the issue typically gets resolved quickly and quietly – directly between the involved parties, maybe in the presence of a mediator who will almost certainly be a colleague of the abuser.
Hence, professors who have physically or verbally assaulted students continue to teach and work closely with research and teaching assistants. In this environment of dependency and subordination, they have easy access to students’ bodies and minds. Among concerned faculty, few actively take the students’ side, and fewer still do so publicly. They are afraid, I suspect, of the very real repercussions of aligning with a student against an abusive colleague, which can range from social shaming all the way to denial of tenure.
I too have chosen to write in anonymity, but I do so in the hope that I can reach some of my braver colleagues – those who are willing to do away with the kind of civility and collegiality that incapacitates us politically and begin to hold each other and this university accountable. After all, we won’t have to be nearly as brave as the former student who shared her experience of abuse with the McGill community. But it is because she spoke out that we can no longer be silent, and because she is in this alone that we have to join her.
—A critical professor