A panel entitled “Sexual Violence and Power Dynamics in a University Setting” was held at McGill on Thursday, September 29, to discuss sexual violence and the abuse of power, including in student-professor and staff-employer relationships. The panel was part of Consent Week, an event series run by Consent McGill, and was organized in collaboration with Students’ Society for McGill University (SSMU) Equity and Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Community Engagement Day. Roughly 50 students attended the event.
Sexual violence has been a particularly prevalent topic on campus in recent months, as a result of the ongoing controversy surrounding McGill’s proposed Sexual Violence Policy, which is currently in development. However, the topic of abuse of power in the university context is rarely discussed publicly.
The topic was briefly discussed at Senate last September with reference to an article published in The Daily, “Let’s Talk about Teacher.” Principal Suzanne Fortier was also asked about allegations of intimate relationships between professors and research assistants in a meeting of the Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) council last November, where she said “We have to […] be careful in respecting [professors’] private lives.”
The University’s Draft Policy against Sexual Violence (DPSV), which was released on September 12 and will be brought to Senate for information this month, does refer to power dynamics in its definition of consent, but does not mention specific types of power dynamics, such as those between students and professors.
“We have to […] be careful in respecting [professors’] private lives.”
During the discussion period, two graduate students asked questions about the DPSV and expressed concerns about the focus of the conversation around sexual assault being solely based on supporting survivors. They said that they would want to see a greater focus on punitive measures against perpetrators in the policy, which currently focuses on “ensuring support for survivors of sexual violence.”
The panelists on Thursday included Nina Hermes, a student who has worked as a floor fellow in McGill residences for the past two years and has been involved with the Sexual Assault Policy Working Group; Claire Michela, the president of the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE); Jason Opal, an associate professor in the department of history; and Adrienne Piggott, a harassment assessor and chair of the subcommittee of the Joint Board-Senate Committee on Equity for Racialized and Ethnic Persons.
The panelists explained that abuse of power is a pervasive issue because it is extremely difficult to take action against a perpetrator of sexual violence who holds a position of power.
For example, Michela said that AMUSE members who are casual employees face particularly challenging obstacles because “their employers are often their professor or their sports coach,” and because they have short term contracts, “they can easily be let go without actually being fired. The employer can simply wait until their contract is up and then not renew it.”
Speaking specifically about barriers to addressing allegations against professors, Opal explained that, amongst professors, there is a pervasive “fear about a false rumour destroying [a] reputation,” which is often used to shut down other professors who raise concerns about allegations.
He added that when a professor is accused of sexual harassment, this is often seen by other professors “as a threat to the department,” which, he stressed, “is itself unacceptable behaviour.”
Hermes spoke of her personal experience of being sexually assaulted by a floor fellow while living in residence. She explained that she was very disappointed with how her case was dealt with in residence, as the perpetrator was “quietly let go.”
“As someone who has just survived this trauma, I really felt like it was swept under the rug,” she told the audience.
Piggott also mentioned that there is still “a climate of secrecy on campus surrounding sexual harassment complaints,” and the panelists discussed the role of “rumours” and informal channels such as student media and social media in this climate.
“As someone who has just survived this trauma, I really felt like it was swept under the rug.”
Michela suggested that rumours about such abuses of power “have become so difficult for the University to ignore that they’ve become politically powerful.”
Piggott added that the University has been aware that sexual assault is a problem on campus for decades, but it was the discussion of the topic publicly in media that has finally pushed them to respond now. “It really did have to be a public shaming for the University to respond, and I think that’s really sad,” she said.
Hermes agreed that informal channels are important as “one of the few avenues that survivors can access.” However, she added, “rarely does that [informal channel] result in any sort of justice, because I can write as many articles as I want, but that’s not going to get someone out of their tenured position.”
“It really did have to be a public shaming for the University to respond, and I think that’s really sad.”
Opal also spoke about how professors must become “informed and visible allies” who are “educated in how to respond in the immediate sense” when someone confides in them about having faced sexual harassment.
He suggested that having a physical sign on allied professors’ office doors to indicate that “the person occupying this office is an informed and sympathetic voice” could give students somewhere to turn to when they need help, while also “visibly disrupting a landscape of hostility.”
Speaking to The Daily, Esther, a U4 student in Education who attended the event, said, “It was very interesting to have such different panelists […] because it really gives us a different point of view of all the different people who are trying to act against sexual violence, especially about power dynamics on campus – it’s something that we don’t really talk about.”
“Rarely does that [informal channel] result in any sort of justice, because I can write as many articles as I want, but that’s not going to get someone out of their tenured position.”
In an interview with The Daily, SSMU VP University Affairs and student senator Erin Sobat, who had also attended the panel, explained the key point which he would like to bring before Senate from the discussion.
“I think there’s a real desire expressed both by panelists and by audience members for there to be a real recognition that the issue does exist,” Sobat said, “and I don’t think that has happened in a substantial way, even in the language of the policy. There’s not really a trust in the administration and their ability to take meaningful action.”