News  A-Branch seeks updates to University’s sexual harassment policy

Grievances include Provost’s lack of training and lack of formal appeal process

Correction appended November 5, 2012.

The McGill Senate will review the University’s Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment, and Discrimination Prohibited by Law this year for the first time since 2009.

Various student groups have criticized the policy since it was first instated as the school’s sexual harassment policy in 1988.

Among these groups is Advocacy Branch (A-Branch), the part of the volunteer-run Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) dedicated to supporting students, faculty, and staff navigating the policy.

The two A-Branch volunteers interviewed identified the authority the policy gives to the Provost as a chief grievance.

“We find it disconcerting that the Provost has so much power,” said Taylor*, a current volunteer and former A-Branch representative. “Our concern is that the Provost isn’t required to have any training in sexual harassment or discrimination.”

Under the current policy, any member of the McGill community may file a complaint against another member to an Assessor, a volunteer member of the McGill community appointed by Senate.

If the Assessor fails to facilitate an informal agreement between the complainant and the respondent, the Assessor investigates and prepares a formal report with recommendations. The Provost evaluates the report and makes a final decision – one which need not follow the Assessor’s recommendation.

Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures & Equity) Lydia White and Provost Anthony Masi do not think this is problematic.

“It’s a matter of ultimately who’s responsible for how the University runs…It is not the Assessors, it’s the Provost,” White told The Daily, adding that the current Provost trusts the Assessors and has only ever followed their recommendations.

Regarding the Provost’s training on the topic, White said, “It’s just not clear that there would be time…this is just one part of his job.”

Masi said he attended the Assessor’s orientation, but did not pursue further training.

“A judge isn’t necessarily trained as a policeman or a prosecutor,” Masi said. “I don’t see why the Provost would have to have training, I’m more on the judge’s side.”

A-Branch also believes that Assessor training, which consists of an initial two-hour session with the University’s legal officer and one or two follow-ups over the course of the year, is inadequate.

White noted that starting this year, additional training from the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office would be provided.

Another aspect of the policy over which Taylor expressed concern is the absence of a formal appeal or complaint procedure. While complainants do have recourse to the University’s Grievance Procedure, A-Branch believes that it is ill-suited to cases of sexual harassment.

According to Taylor, “Going through a different procedure as an appeals mechanism means you have to recount your story again to more people…it’s heavy for someone to carry that.”

White expressed uncertainty about whether or not there should be a formal appeal process, and Masi believes it is unnecessary.

“There is already the ability to make your case to an Assessor. The Assessor makes an initial judgment. That judgment is then reviewed,” said Masi. “I know in baseball you get three strikes, but I think the second level up is sufficient.”

Professor Prakash Panangaden, an Assessor since 2007, voiced different concerns about the structure of the policy.

“Students are still afraid of filing complaints against their professors, and employees against their managers,” said Panangaden. “I don’t think people feel protected enough by us…I don’t feel like I can protect them that effectively either.”

Specifically, Panangaden felt that he could not protect complainants if their cases were not successful.

“We have rigorous demands for evidence…When it’s some low-grade continuous harassment that I can’t pinpoint easily, or make a compelling case for a particular side, then I can’t really put an end to it, or shield the person.”

“They have not done a good enough job to provide support,” Panangaden added. “I think student mental health [services] should be beefed up.”

Despite the various concerns about the general structure of the Policy, A-Branch’s main goal for the upcoming review is for McGill to at least adhere to it.

They point to the fact that the University has not upheld the part of the policy that stipulates the creation of “an office the mandate of which includes the education of, and the dissemination of information…concerning such matters as harassment, discrimination and equity.”

“An office does not exist,” said Taylor. “There is no one space that manages the distribution of information on the policy. It’s written in very legalistic language, and it’s very hard to understand, and nowhere on campus or online is there some kind of information to help people understand it.”

Quinn*, the A-Branch representative, said their second objective is to see the continued updating of the policy website.

White felt that the website does need more work, but that between the website and the services provided by SEDE, the policy’s requirements for an office had been met.

The SEDE Office distributes general information about equity, discrimination, and harassment, but little information about the sexual harassment policy itself.

Panangaden feels that an office for the policy is perhaps unnecessary, but that the policy needs to be better publicized.

“I don’t think anyone knows this whole thing exists,” Panangaden said.

At the last review at Senate in 2009, A-Branch presented recommendations to the review committee and succeeded in having the word “intent” removed from the policy’s definition of sexual harassment.

White said that she will be assembling the review committee shortly, and this year, A-Branch will be granted a spot.

Senate will vote on the review committee’s recommendations in March 2013.

*Names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of SACOMSS volunteers. 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Prof. Panangaden had been an Assessor since 2010, in fact, he has been an Assessor since 2007. The Daily regrets the error.