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The vicious circle of professor-student relationships

A follow-up investigation of McGill’s policies on sexual harassment

Across Canadian universities, sexual harassment of students by professors is slowly becoming a central and very public issue. An investigation by Le Devoir reveals that a number of reported cases of sexual harassment at Canadian universities have been mishandled, or even silenced, by university administrations. The most recent case was reported at Brock University, but cases at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) have also received media attention.

Although sexual harassment cases at McGill have not been as widely broadcast in the media, the reality is not much different than on other campuses. In September 2015, The McGill Daily published “Let’s talk about teacher,” (September 1, Features, page 11) a feature that looked at a student’s experience of a sexual relationship with her professor, including the negative emotional and psychological consequences that this relationship caused. The professor in question – let’s call him Professor A – was reported in this article to have been in many similar ‘relations’ with his female undergraduate students, in addition to soliciting unwelcomed sexual acts and making references to intimate behaviour. Interestingly, no formal complaints or grievances about Professor A have been led or submitted to the Dean of Students. Could this be due to the lack of faith in McGill’s capability in handling such cases and imposing real, meaningful sanctions? To answer this question, I turned to McGill professors, staff , and students for insight on how McGill deals with professors who have had intimate relationships with students.

Stephen Saideman was a political science professor at McGill from 2002 to 2012, and is currently the Paterson Chair of International Affairs at Carleton University. Saideman has a personal blog where he recently posted a piece regarding McGill’s handling of another professor, whom we will refer to as Professor B. Saideman wrote, “I have repeatedly referred to a particular serial sexual harasser […] but obliquely so. Why obliquely so? Because I am not sure what the consequences are for me of violating the confidentiality agreements of a place I used to work and because I didn’t want people to speculate about who received this guy’s unwanted attention.”

Interestingly, no formal complaints or grievances about Professor A have been filed or submitted.

According to Saideman, during his time at McGill, Professor B did, in fact, face some consequences following allegations of sexual harassment against him. In this case, a female graduate student had led the complaint against the professor, and the complaint was taken seriously. However, the sanctions taken against Professor B were questionable, in Saideman’s view.

Saideman revealed to me that this is perhaps due to the fact that “[the University] did find in favour of the student, and the provost found that something inappropriate happened at the time, but that it did not fit the definition at the time of sexual harassment.” He added, “I do believe this is a failure on the part of that provost.” As a sanction, Saideman wrote on his blog post, “he [Professor B] got moved out of his office in a remote location and put next to my office. I apparently was supposed to babysit/ monitor him (which was strange since I only learned of his behavior informally, not through the administration).” Moreover, Professor B was conditionally restricted from taking on graduate students following the investigation, but Saideman notes that “his ban of supervising grad students apparently has lapsed as well,” and it appears as though Professor B has taken on new female graduate students since the investigation. Inasmuch as Saideman could not publicly condemn Professor B’s behaviour, he resorted to other means of trying to protect students as a member of graduate admissions within the department. Saideman wrote, “I tried to keep students who wanted to do [the topics he teaches] from coming to McGill because I had little confidence that they would stay away from him.”

In my conversation with Saideman, he told me that “the core problem is how McGill has handled it. It was all treated confidentially, which has the effect of protecting the perpetrator.” He noted that “the job of the University is to protect students,” but it would seem the administration has not done so in this case. Saideman concluded our conversation by saying, decisively, “I simply don’t understand why McGill has not fired him yet.”

While confidentiality is valuable from a legal perspective in maintaining fairness and impartiality for an investigation, it can often create the sense among students that the administration fails to deal appropriately with professors like Professor B. On a broader level, it sends a message that normalizes student-professor relations, and sets an example for other professors that they can get away with this kind of inappropriate behaviour. Moreover, in the event that faculty members are indeed determined by the University to have conducted themselves inappropriately, as in the case of Professor B, it would seem remiss not to alert the students themselves – especially in the case that the faculty member is not fired or removed in some way from their role as instructor. For students who have experienced sexual harassment at the hands of a professor, we can imagine how this kind of story, even in the form of a “rumour,” could dissuade them from coming forward.

Regardless of whether professors such as A and B are in fact “pathological predators,” firing them is perhaps not the ultimate solution. They can always go to another institution, and behave similarly toward the students there. McGill has a responsibility to deal with its faculty’s inappropriate conduct while employed here. It might be more conducive to think of real meaningful sanctions to impose on professors that might be regulated by some sort of ‘code of ethics’ with regard to sexual harassment from professors. These issues could be framed in terms of consent and ethical conduct, as well as repercussions on professors held accountable. In cases where professors have been known to take advantage of their position of authority to “treat their classrooms like real-life Tinder accounts,” as discussed in “Let’s talk about teacher,” we need to step up and protect our students. In letting this behaviour slide without consequence, we are all complicit in the silencing of these cases, and are putting students at the mercy of professors who use their power and privilege against them.

McGill has a responsibility to deal with their faculty’s inappropriate conduct while employed here. It might be more conducive to think of real meaningful sanctions.

When we talk about professor-student relations, often the argument comes down to one’s legal age and consent. However, we should not limit our discussion to these two assessors of legality. We cannot judge whether an action is moral or not based solely on our understanding of consent. In his letter (September 8, Commentary, page 11) in response to “Let’s talk about teacher,” Jason M. Opal, associate professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies, explains the “profound inadequacies of ‘consent’ as a moral and social category,” wherein “consent is better than coercion: that is the best thing we can say about it. Otherwise it only asks what one person can persuade another person to do, without any concern for where they came from, what they need, and who they are.”

Shirley Katz, who was Associate Dean of Arts at York University in the 1990s, and wrote a policy on relationships between instructors and students at York in 2000, similarly articulates her reservations about “consent.” In her article, “Sexual Relations Between Students and Faculty,” published by University Affairs, Katz observes that critics of student-faculty relationships argue that consent can never be meaningful, because “professors have all sorts of power over students – the power to grade and evaluate the student’s work, the power to provide references for graduate and professional schools and for jobs, the power to serve as intellectual or career mentors and sometimes as role models.” The student’s power in this dynamic is not comparable, and talking of equality between consenting adults in this case ignores the power differential on which the relationship is built. Katz adds that “because the professor’s powers affect the student’s life in a significant way, […] the student cannot say no to the relationship, so her consent is actually coerced compliance.”

As such, the initial consent provided by the student at the outset of the relationship eventually becomes intertwined in a power dynamic of reward or threat of punishment, giving the upper hand to authority, which renders the student vulnerable and thus transforms the relationship into an exploitative one. How then, can we talk of consent when so many factors are pervasively rooted in the relation?

The student’s power in this dynamic is not comparable, and talking of equality between consenting adults in this case ignores the power differential on which the relationship is built.

In an interview, Yves Winter, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, told me that “while I am wary of expanding the University’s already considerable regulatory power over its members’ intimate lives, I think sexual relations between faculty members and undergraduate students should be off limits.” McGill has a responsibility to protect its students by taking a clear position on consent, but also by better training faculty and staff on matters of sexual harassment.

Winter noted that “at the moment, there is no required sexual harassment training for faculty, and the University could take a much more pro-active approach to such training. The Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office offers a series of Safer Spaces workshops that cover sexual assault and harassment, among other things, but in my experience, the level of faculty attendance of these workshop tends to be quite low.”

On the idea of a policy and repercussions for faculty members, Opal proposed the idea in our discussion that in cases where faculty are not fired, there is a range of meaningful sanctions that can be imposed, such as to one’s salary. Something else to consider is preventive measures to protect students before they become victims of sexual harassment. According to Opal, this could take the form of an initiative to educate faculty on notions of respect and appropriate relationships, with the underlying idea of changing the culture around professor-student relations. We need to acknowledge the dynamic as “inherently problematic, usually exploitative, and often predatory,” asserts Opal. The goal of this approach is to make our learning environment a safer space that is pro-student, and one that aims to treat us as individuals with dignity, and not as sexual objects.

Similarly, Winter also discussed the limits of the current sexual assault policy. “The current policy is inadequate,” said Winter. “It fails to define clear limits of appropriate conduct; it does not specify sanctions; and it is too hard to actually impose sanctions.” Moreover, he pointed out that the policy only deals with cases that happened in the previous year, which imposes a time constraint on complainants. Winter emphasized that, in general, the whole approach needs to shift, because “the problem of these policies is that they are designed to protect the institution’s assets, namely faculty members.” While the policy must provide for due process, Winter argues that the University also needs to do a better job protecting victims “by changing the ways it handles information, and by enacting provisional measures, if necessary, while investigating a case.”

From this perspective, we need a new policy that offers meaningful change not only in the way complaints are handled when they are filed, but also in the whole bureaucratic system that currently protects faculty members through limiting measures with regard to time and confidentiality. We need a pro-student policy that is able to respond to the complexity and diversity of cases, and one that is proactive instead of reactive with meaningful measures such as training and awareness.

Hasana Sharp, associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, is also of the opinion that there simply should not be relationships at all between professors and undergraduates. She proposed that we should also have “a rule against graduate students and [professors having] sex or relationships [for those] who are in the same department, not because of age, but because of the institutional relationship of power.”

Sharp continued, “It does not matter who initiates the first move, for the particulars of the relationship are irrelevant. These institutionally vertical relationships should simply be ruled out as a possibility, and it needs to be clear.” The form of inquiry in these cases “should really avoid interrogation of the state of mind of the student or try to assess whether a relationship is appropriate or not,” Sharp contends. It should not investigate the extent to which the student initiated intimacy or was receptive to it, for these are “all inappropriate forms of inquiry that mirror the way sexual harassment and rape is problematically investigated. We should avoid psychological inquiry altogether,” she said.

Sharp also points to how, in academia, “professors in general need to be educated about how to conduct themselves in the context of a field in which reputation is extremely important, and determined significantly by evaluation of peers and superiors.” The issue of reputation and abuse of power in this sense touches professor-student relations, but also senior-junior faculty members. Senior professors have huge influence over promotion, tenure, and reputation in the field. Whatever the rules are, they should impose consequences on the party with institutional power and responsibility and avoid putting the burden on complainants. “The administration too often goes after complainants like a court of law to invalidate their allegations because the University does not want to be accountable for abuse on the part of their employees,” she said. Given this, Sharp notes that each of us has to be very sensitive to the power professors have over one another, over graduate students, and over undergraduates.

Until McGill comes up with a new policy that includes some sort of clear ethical guidelines with appropriate sanctions, our silence regarding harassment cases is complicit in sustaining a space where professors are permitted to pursue students without consequence.

Some faculty members are taking this issue seriously and are attempting to change the culture around professor-student relations. Such is the case of Angela Campbell, who was appointed Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures & Equity) at McGill in 2015. Since taking office, Campbell has been working with Dean of Students, André Costopoulos and Liaison Officer (Harm Reduction) Bianca Tétrault, among others, on finding ways to better implement the current policies that are in place through education and sensitization. Campbell emphasized the different vehicles, both formal and informal, that are available to students to disclose complaints of professorial improper behaviour. These include reporting to a professor, an advisor, the Liaison Officer (Harm Reduction), either through the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law or through the Policy on Safe Disclosure. The latter, Campbell explains, allows for complaints by anonymous disclosure, via the Secretary-General, without having the complainant’s identity made known during an investigation. Campbell assured me that, where warranted, professors “can be disciplined for conflict of interest and failure to act according to duties set by University regulations and policies.” To facilitate communication with students, she emphasized her accessibility and openness to talk with anyone who wants to discuss experiences with professor-student relations.

While there appears to be some willingness and desire to improve the University’s responses to this issue, these latter approaches do not challenge our actual policy or openly question the nature of professor-student relations. We might hope that these educational measures will open up more channels of communication between students, professors, and administrative members to fight the culture of silencing, and break the vicious circle of professor-students relations. Otherwise, until McGill comes up with a new policy that includes some sort of clear ethical guidelines with appropriate sanctions, our silence regarding harassment cases is complicit in sustaining a space where professors are permitted to pursue students without consequence.

Having said this, education, sensitivity, and training as the chief disciplinary responses to professor-student relations are likely not the entire answer. At the end of the day, everyone should know that it is inappropriate to sleep with one’s students. A training session won’t change people’s behaviours. We need to do more than just educate, because that assumes that the problem is caused by a lack of knowledge or self-awareness – which in the case of professors repeatedly taking advantage of their students, is unlikely to be true.

The voices featured in this article indicate that the new policy currently being drafted by the student-led working group on sexual assault and harassment on campus is much needed. Also clear is that this document should include a clause specific to professor-student relations, with clear guidelines and punitive sanctions. Clear ethical rules must be adopted by the policy and integrated into faculty and student orientations. Such a policy should place the responsibility on the professor to respect and follow these guidelines, not on the student. Whether this will happen or not, only time will tell. Until then, we must further open the discussion on hierarchical and gender-based abuses of power to make this issue more public, even in the midst of official sanctions occurring behind closed doors.