News | Islamic Studies Institute in the spotlight following abuse allegations against professor

Case reveals institutional barriers to accountability for sexual violence at McGill

Content warning: sexual violence

Further information has emerged regarding the ongoing case of an Islamic Studies professor publicly accused of sexual violence. More students have spoken out condemning both his behaviour and the lack of a robust institutional response, as the situation feeds mounting criticism of McGill’s sexual violence policy.

 

Allegations of abuse

Roughly a month ago, stickers began appearing in washrooms across campus, alleging sexual violence perpetrated by a certain professor in McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies, whom they explicitly named. Noting that the professor is up for tenure this semester, the stickers urged students to send testimonies of abusive behaviour on the part of faculty and staff to zerotolerance@riseup.net.

The professor in question agreed to make a statement to The Daily, on the condition that his name would not appear anywhere in our coverage. After consultation with affected parties, The Daily decided to comply with his request. In his statement, he called the allegations against him “categorically untrue,” adding, “I am deeply committed to doing my part to make every student feel safe in my classroom and on McGill’s campus.” He has not responded to further requests for comment from The Daily.

This professor, whose behaviour was described as “predatory” by a former student in a statement to The Daily, was the subject of an open letter sent to Robert Wisnovsky, Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, during the Winter 2017 semester. Written by the 2016-2017 executive team of the World Islamic and Middle East Studies Student Association (WIMESSA), the letter was signed by roughly 50 other students at the Institute. It accused the Institute of failing to take the situation seriously, stating that the professor had repeatedly “violated [the] student-professor contract” through his abusive behaviour.

“It is disconcerting that such an abuse of power appears to be going unreprimanded,” read the open letter. “As it stands, women are at a disadvantage within the Islamic Studies department, and this inequality needs to be corrected. For these reasons, WIMESSA vehemently encourages the impending tenure committee to deny [the professor] tenure.”

 

Institutional barriers to accountability

Following an article published in The Daily on October 2, which reported the above facts, this year’s WIMESSA executive team posted a statement on Facebook. While refraining from naming the professor concerned, they expressed solidarity with their constituents, and frustration at the institutional barriers which effectively shield the professor from public scrutiny.

“We have taken steps to consult former executives, speak with legal experts, and meet with Institute administrators to discuss what actions we can take as students and student representatives to help address this ongoing situation,” read WIMESSA’s statement. “What we have been consistently met with, however, is nondisclosure agreements and red tape.”

The statement also claimed that consent training had been provided for the Institute’s faculty in September. However, when The Daily tried to find out more, we drew a blank: Wisnovsky did not respond to requests for more information, and the McGill administration was unable to provide details, or even confirm that such training occurred. Isabelle Oke, VP University Affairs of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), said that she hadn’t been informed of the training either, and that such a thing would be highly unusual within the McGill context.

“This situation is definitely an anomaly,” Oke told The Daily. “There aren’t any other faculties that I know of that have this training, and if ever a faculty is offered a training workshop it is voluntary.”

The Daily spoke with the WIMESSA executive team to clarify the situation, but they too proved unable to provide further details. In essence, it emerged that an administrator had suggested to the executives that consent training would occur at some point in August or September, without letting them know whether the training would be mandatory, who would facilitate it, what material it would cover, and when exactly it would occur. At the time of publication, The Daily has not received clarification from Wisnovsky or from any other departmental administrator on any of these points.

In addition to an acute lack of concrete information from administrators, WIMESSA has been fraught with internal controversy. It recently emerged that the President of WIMESSA is employed as a Research Assistant by the professor accused of sexual violence. Furthermore, the President failed to disclose this conflict of interest to most of her fellow executives (except the VP Internal); indeed, they were unaware of it until The Daily contacted the executive team on October 11 to inquire about this matter. Since then, she has removed herself from all meetings and discussions regarding the professor concerned, though she retains her role on the executive team. The professor in question did not reply to an email from The Daily asking whether or not he had been aware of the WIMESSA President’s position on the executive before offering her a job. The President herself also declined to comment on the record.

Roughly two weeks ago, meanwhile, as the Institute reeled from the impact of the allegations on its community, WIMESSA’s former VP Finance Sarah Shamy resigned from her position. In an interview with The Daily, Shamy explained that her resignation had been largely a product of frustration over the handling of this professor’s behaviour, both by the rest of the WIMESSA executive and by the Institute.

“I believe the administration’s refusal to address the issue directly and their lack of transparency has inspired fear among the [WIMESSA executives],” she said. “The way they see it is […] ‘if upper administration, people whose main duty and responsibility is to address students’ concerns, aren’t engaging in any thorough and effective actions, then why does the burden fall on us?’”

Regarding the Institute’s actions, Shamy was sharply critical.

“The Institute will only care insofar as their reputation is at stake,” she said. “As far as I know, in past years […] the Institute did not respond appropriately [to complaints about the professor in question]. I would not even be able to characterize their efforts as minimal or ineffective because that would imply the presence of efforts when there are none. A few years ago, what we had was a professor who used his position of power in order to perpetuate abusive behaviour. Today, we still have the same professor who uses his position of power in order to perpetuate abusive behaviour. That is all that needs to be known.” 

One factor in this perceived inaction on the part of McGill and the Institute is that the professor concerned has never been the subject of a formal complaint lodged through the University’s Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support, and Education. He has, however, reportedly been the subject of allegations brought to Institute administrators by at least one student.

Given that the professor concerned will be considered for tenure this semester, The Daily reached out to McGill’s administration to find out how students can participate in the tenure process. According to Angela Campbell, Deputy Provost (Policies, Procedures, and Equity), “student input usually finds its way into the tenure dossier through teaching/course evaluations, which are included as part of the teaching portfolio.” Disciplinary actions taken against a given professor are also included in their tenure dossier, but “disciplinary investigations and sanctions are only possible through reports of misconduct which, by definition, cannot be anonymous.”

In short, there is no way for students’ allegations of sexual violence to be included in a professor’s tenure dossier if they remain anonymous. This serves as a deterrent for many, who opt to remain silent rather than face potential reprisals should they put their names to accusations of abuse.

 

A long-term problem

In the course of The Daily’s investigation into this situation, in addition to receiving first-hand accounts of the professor’s predatory behaviour, we also heard from several students who were unsurprised by the public allegations against him.

“I have known about [these allegations] for years and have managed to avoid taking a course with [the professor concerned], but most students do not have this information,” said Chantelle Schultz, a U3 WIMES and East Asian Studies student and former editor at The Daily. “The University has kept it from them, despite efforts from WIMESSA executives and students. Is this professor’s reputation and career more important to the administration than the safety of the young women who have made complaints? The fact that our university still has no policy stopping professors from having relationships with their students is not an accident – the administration is well aware of this problem, and its silence keeps the University from being responsible.”

Indeed, McGill’s recently created Sexual Violence Policy does not address professor-student relationships specifically; a student could use it to file a complaint of sexual violence against a professor should they wish to, but it does not define student-professor relationships as inherently non-consensual due to the inevitable imbalance of power between the two parties involved. McGill’s Conflict of Interest Policy does recognize such relationships as constituting a conflict of interest, but it doesn’t acknowledge them as non-consensual and harmful, or set out any meaningful consequences for professors who engage in them.

Niyousha Bastani, a former WIMESSA executive and editor at The Daily, explained that students within the Institute had been speaking out about this particular professor for years.

“To my knowledge, WIMESSA executives were raising these concerns with the department as far back as the fall semester of 2015,” she said. “The University didn’t call for a meeting with WIMES students to address our very real concerns about safety until the very last day of exams in the April 2017. […] They gave us four days notice for that meeting, scheduled it on the last day of exams by which date many students had already left the city, and even though it had taken them at least two years to respond, the Dean of Students did not even make the effort to be present in person and skyped in. The meeting was held off the records, […] but I can say that we as students were offered no recourse, only countless reminders that what the University can do is limited by the law and that formal processes are available to us.”

The meeting in question was advertised to all students within the Institute, and led by Campbell. She reportedly refrained from referring to the professor involved or specifics of his case, only citing McGill policy in general terms.

“How are WIMES students supposed to trust the University when they are constantly pushed to secrecy, repeatedly reminded that naming the accused professor can be libelous?” continued Bastani. “When they can only look out for each other through informal channels, quietly passing around letters or petitions to collect signatures? The University has not used its institutional power to protect its students, instead, it has shamelessly chosen to protect its reputation by sweeping their concerns under the rug for over two years.”

 

Moving forward

According to the current WIMESSA executive team, their main goal for the moment is to organize an event at which students from the Institute will be able to voice their concerns in an open and honest dialogue with administrators. Such an event would stand in contrast to the April 2017 meeting with Angela Campbell, which left students feeling frustrated and silenced.

“Basically we’re planning an open forum […] where students can directly communicate their thoughts to the administration,” said a member of the executive, “because from what we’ve seen, people have been voicing those concerns and there hasn’t been a response from the institution. […] So that people know that the department knows how they feel in a direct way, and so students can get out their frustrations. […] This has just been something that students coming into the department eventually hear about – rumours and that kind of thing. We’d like it to become more of an open discussion rather than an open secret, and to involve the department in that discussion as well.”

The Daily also reached out to Zero Tolerance, the anonymous group of students carrying out the stickering campaign which drew public awareness to this situation. According to the email we received in reply, Zero Tolerance is run by students from outside the WIMES program who wish to “stand in solidarity with [their] peers in the Institute.”

“For over two years, students in the Islamic Studies department (primarily women of colour) have been trying to get McGill’s administration to hold [this professor] accountable for his unacceptable behaviour toward his students,” wrote Zero Tolerance. “Their concerns were [minimized] and deemed insufficient by the McGill administration. […] Therefore, we at Zero Tolerance decided it was time for us to take on this labour […] by using stickers and other direct action tactics to inform the student population of his behaviour in order for his female-presenting students to be able to protect themselves. […] We are calling on students to raise their concerns with [this professor] to the head of Islamic Studies Robert Wisnovsky, and the Dean of Arts, Antonia Maioni by email, phone, and in person.”

In their email to The Daily, Zero Tolerance confirmed that they have received several student testimonies of abusive behaviour from faculty since beginning their campaign. They did not reveal whether they have plans to escalate their campaign by using more direct action tactics, but they included an uncompromising message for all McGill professors who engage in predatory behaviour towards their students: “We know your names. We are coming for you.”


Editor’s note: The above article was amended on October 27 to redact the name of the President of WIMESSA in accordance with her wishes, and to clarify that she notified the VP Internal of her conflict of interest, as well as choosing to remove herself from all discussions relating to the Professor for whom she works.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.