Content warning: sexual assault, abuse of power
Concordia University’s English department, and the larger world of Canadian literature (“CanLit”), is facing allegations of a culture of sexual violence, harassment, and abuse of power by professors and writers over the course of several decades. The allegations, outlined in a blog post by writer and former Concordia instructor Mike Spry on January 8, do not identify individuals by name. Instead, they point to a systemic pattern of sexual harassment and exploitation of vulnerable young female writers.
Spry states in his blog post that he has “been witness to and made aware of innumerable instances of unwanted affection, groping, inappropriate remarks, and propositions” over the course of his relationship with the university, beginning as an undergraduate student 14 years ago, up until his time as an instructor at the university from 2013 to 2015.
“A professor/writer harasses a student, and the student remains silent because they need the grade, or the letter of recommendation, or the internship at the prof’s publisher,” Spry wrote. “Both Concordia and CanLit have fostered inappropriate behaviors and environments that have permeated throughout the community.”
Spry went on to admit that he himself had been complacent in this culture of misogyny – both in remaining silent as his friends and coworkers abused their power, and in participating in this culture of abuse himself.
“I demanded respect and relationships I felt I was owed. I dated women inappropriately younger than me. I treated them poorly,” Spry wrote.
Spry’s apparent role in Concordia’s culture of misogyny was made clearer when, in the days following his post, his former girlfriend Julie McIsaac wrote her own blog post about her experiences with misogyny in CanLit. In her post, she described her experiences with Mike Spry, whom she describes as “deeply sexist.”
“He was an active player who belittled and harassed women writers who only wanted to make the same career moves he benefited from. And now his career is likely to benefit from his speaking out,” she wrote.
While the validity of Spry’s presence in this movement has been called into question, following McIsaac’s post, his allegations have been affirmed by many other writers and graduates of Concordia, most of them women.
In fact, Spry was not the first to write publicly about these experiences – in a 2014 essay written for The Hairpin, writer Emma Healey discussed her experience of being in a relationship with a professor at Concordia. At the time, she was 19, and the professor was 34; he pursued her, aggressively and to the knowledge of his colleagues. As Healey describes the relationship, it was unhealthy and violent.
“While the relationship itself was consensual, much of what happened within its borders was not,” she said.
Healey is one of many women who have spoken about similar experiences over the course of the last decade. Most of them have also acknowledged the use of whisper networks as tools of information, in order to warn their peers about predatory men.
“A story like this is a password. Once you say it out loud, doors start to open,” she wrote.
University responds to allegations
Concordia president Alan Shepard announced the launch of a formal investigation, conducted by an external investigator, in response to the blog post. This will take place alongside a university-wide task force to ensure campus safety and well-being.
“I’m profoundly sorry that some of our alumni and students have experienced what they’re reported to have experienced,” Shepard said in a press conference on Wednesday. “I’ve been reading that it’s an open secret, but it was not an open secret to me.”
Shepard’s comments were surprising to some, given that in 2015, a group of alumni wrote a letter to Concordia’s administration in response to Healey’s 2014 article. In the letter, they described the “toxic” culture at the university and its detrimental impacts on women. The letter was apparently received by the Human Resources department, and no action was taken, according to its writers.
Several reporters present at the press conference asked about the steps taken by Concordia to protect students from predatory professors, but Shepard did not speak to the university’s previous or ongoing disciplinary proceedings.
“All investigations are confidential by law and by our policies,” he said, “and I won’t be able to comment on the specific investigation, or people who have been named on social media.”
Shepard also clarified that while faculty-student relationships are not banned at Concordia, they fall under the conflict of interest policy, which requires that relationships of this nature are disclosed to the university. Concordia is currently in the process of expanding their working group and policies around the issues of sexual violence and power imbalance in relationships.
Since the press conference, two Concordia professors named as alleged abusers on social media have been reassigned pending investigation.
Widespread abuses of power across university lines
Concordia is not the only university to face allegations of sexual harassment and violence by faculty members, and a culture of “open secrecy.” McGill has been plagued with allegations of sexual violence by professors for the last several years.
Most recently, a professor in the Islamic Studies department was accused of several accounts of sexual harassment and abuse of power: stickers bearing his name and allegations surrounding his conduct have been found across the campus throughout this academic year.
When asked about these allegations, Principal Suzanne Fortier said, “When it comes to access to information, there are certain things that are to be kept private. You will not hear about investigations […] the absence of information does not mean the absence of investigation.”
Then, in December, a dentist at the Faculty of Dentistry was accused of sexually assaulting one of his patients in November of 2016. The woman who experienced the assault expressed feeling disappointed and neglected by the university’s response to her allegations, stating that she did not feel supported or believed by the administrators investigating her case. No outcome was publicised in that investigation.
McGill Prominent professors implicated in tell-all posts about abusive power dynamics and sexual harassment has not commented on either of these allegations, or the existence of whisper networks amongst women students on campus. Despite allegations of sexual harassment or abuse of power by several prominent professors at the university, the administration has not publicly initiated any efforts to protect its vulnerable students.