Two weeks ago, stickers began appearing in women’s 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 from faculty and staff to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The professor in question agreed to make a statement to The Daily, on the condition that his name not appear anywhere in our coverage; after consultation with affected parties, we decided to comply with his request.
“Anonymous accusations have been posted around campus about me that are categorically untrue and constitute defamation,” wrote the professor in an email to The Daily. “I am deeply committed to doing my part to make every student feel safe in my classroom and on McGill’s campus.”
Noting that the professor is up for tenure this semester, the stickers urged students to send testimonies of abusive behaviour from faculty and staff to email@example.com.
Testimony from students would suggest otherwise, however. One former student, who wished to remain anonymous, described her experience with the professor’s “predatory” behaviour.
“I frequently went to office hours, […] and [the professor] and I developed a friendship,” she explained. “A second year student at the time, I was excited to have a professor take such an interest in me and my academic plans. However, I soon realized this interest was not well intentioned. [The professor] would constantly bring the conversation back to our personal lives (including former partners), would slide his chair next to mine so that we were almost touching, would insist on keeping the door to his office closed, and multiple times would assure me that he was not the one marking my papers (I took this as him setting up why it was okay for us to have a sexual relationship when he was still my professor). I was not interested in his advances and nothing happened, but I […] ultimately reduced my office visits. […] It disheartened me, and made me feel unsafe in my learning environment.”
This testimony echoes an open letter sent during the Winter 2017 semester to Robert Wisnovsky, Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies. Written by the 2016-2017 executive team of the World Islamic and Middle East Studies Student Association (WIMESSA), the letter was circulated in petition form to all students taking courses at the Institute.
“I was not interested in his advances and nothing happened, but I […] ultimately reduced my office visits. […] It disheartened me, and made me feel unsafe in my learning environment.”
“We (WIMESSA execs) believe that the department is partially not taking this seriously, because they don’t think many undergrads personally care,” read the preamble to the open letter. “There is also no ‘paper trail’ of student concern which makes the department less accountable to the university.”
The letter itself, addressed to Wisnovsky, argued that the professor involved had repeatedly “violated [the] student-professor contract” through his abusive behaviour.
“As undergraduate students in the department,” it read, “we rely on our professors to act as teachers and role models, and to uphold mutual relationships of respect. Our professors hold immense power and authority over us: they determine our grades, they write recommendation letters, they are often our employers as well as teachers, and they act as key networks for our future employment.”
The open letter went on to describe the various ways in which women studying at the Institute had been impacted by the professor’s persistent inappropriate behaviour, including avoiding his classes when possible (though he sometimes teaches mandatory courses), changing their thesis subjects so as not to have to work with him, and feeling uncomfortable and unsafe in the Institute.
“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.”
“It is disconcerting that such an abuse of power appears to be going unreprimanded.”
It is unclear what steps Wisnovsky took in response to this letter. The professor in question has continued to teach, and Wisnovsky declined to answer The Daily’s questions on this matter following the appearance of the stickers.
This year’s WIMESSA executive, meanwhile, released a public statement that expressed support for students at the Institute without naming the professor concerned, or making reference to any concrete details of the situation.
“In light of recent events regarding the Islamic Studies Institute,” read their statement, “we want to extend our services to the community and support our students in any way we can. […] Sexual violence is a serious issue that we do not tolerate and we recognize the institutional violence that this inherently causes. […] This is a matter that we are taking very seriously and we are working as much as we can within our power to ensure transparency and accountability.”
“Our professors hold immense power and authority over us: they determine our grades, they write recommendation letters, they are often our employers as well as teachers, and they act as key networks for our future employment.”
The executive team declined to respond to The Daily’s specific questions about this professor and the allegations against him.
When asked about the stickers’ assertion that McGill has made little substantive effort to address the issue of abusive profs, leaving students alienated and unsafe, Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity) Angela Campbell replied that “the University takes all complaints of misconduct seriously.” However, said Campbell, “survivors can and should report through the appropriate channels,” and “McGill’s administration disapproves of attempts to address such matters through anonymous posters such as [the stickers] found on campus and is taking measures to remove these.”
Indeed, McGill personnel seem to be making an effort to remove the stickers quickly, but more continue to appear across campus. It remains to be seen what concrete action, if any, the Institute of Islamic Studies will take, and what tactics the stickers’ creators will resort to next.