Commentary | We have always known about McGill’s predatory professors

Student testimonies confirm decades old warning system between peers

“… but don’t you think McGill cares about students?” a reporter for CTV News asked. He seemed unconvinced by the McGill Daily’s account of administration responses to alleged acts of sexual violence committed by professors. On April 5, 2018, SSMU held a press conference for external media outlets regarding the student-circulated petition requesting a third-party investigation into the mismanagement of student-professor sexual violence allegations on campus. For the world outside of the McGill bubble, this story might have seemed groundbreaking.“McGill faces its own #metoo moment” read the the CBC article’s headline, as if McGill was new to disclosures of sexual assault.

Picture by Claire Grenier of the April 11 McGill+Concordia students walk out in protest of the universities’ mismanaging of cases of gendered and sexual violence committed by professors.

The phenomenon is hardly new, yet disclosures have only recently been brought to the attention of newspapers, blogs, and other formal media sources. One of the most well-known articles, “Let’s talk about teachers,”  reported on the subject as early as September of 2015. In the years following the piece’s publication, a series of annual disclosures touching upon gendered and sexual violence in university have been published by the Daily, the CBC, and even professors themselves. (“Let’s talk about grey areas”, “The vicious circle of professor-student relationships”, “McGill professor accused of sexual misconduct”, “Islamic Studies Institute in the spotlight following abuse allegations against professor”, “McGill’s Shame Continues”, “McGill’s dentistry faculty criticized over its handling of sexual assault, harassment allegations”).

The lack of documentation of survivor accounts does not warrant McGill’s silence. If anything, it highlights the difficulty of reporting, disclosing, and engaging with the administration as a survivor on McGill campus. Oftentimes disclosures are made even more difficult, especially in the academic context, due to the constant lack of belief in survivors and their experiences with gendered and sexual violence. Given the overall despondency of the administration, survivors are left with few other places to turn in order to report their experiences, seek accommodations, and alert their peers of possible dangers on campus. When the institutions that are meant to protect students do not, students are pushed to resort to their own tactics to create spaces on campus that will.

The lack of documentation of survivor accounts does not warrant McGill’s silence. If anything, it highlights the difficulty of reporting, disclosing, and engaging with the administration as a survivor on McGill campus.

On April 9, the McGill Daily sent out a survey to collect testimonies from students confirming the existence of these systems of reporting gendered and sexual violence through “word of mouth,” or student to student warnings. Dozens of testimonies flooded the Daily inbox within the span of 48 hours, and many more are still coming. The scale and specificity of this system attests to the degree in which McGill has neglected its students’ outcries, as well as the long history of student solidarity on campus in the face of McGill’s ongoing negligence. Included here are some of these testimonies:

  • Courtney Graham, a Political Science student at McGill from 2008 to 2011 described the “word of mouth” system enacted by students as a “large circle.” “[They] knew of at least three professors rumored to be in sexual relationships with students, and this did not include graduate students/faculty.” Moreover, “there was one professor [during their] second year at McGill in the Political Science department [they were] told was not allowed to be alone in his office with female students without the door open. To [their] knowledge, he still teaches at McGill. In fact, two of the professors with accusations of sexual relations with students are still there.
  • Aisha*, a Faculty of Arts student, has also been informed about predatory professors by peer communication and testimonies since their arrival at McGill campus in 2010. “Everybody knows who the predatory professors are, I’ve heard of one professor in my own department, ” they remarked.
  • Pauline*, a Political Science student from 2011 to 2014, “recall[ed] the names of three professors mentioned during [their] time at McGill,” and explained how their names travelled by word of mouth from small groups to others through intersecting friend groups.
  • Joe*, a student in the Faculty of Arts from 2012 to 2016, “heard of at least six professors in Arts [sexually involved with students] in a concrete way and heard mentions of sketchy things happening in other faculties too. Three of these were personal testimonies of people who had negative experiences with professors and the rest [they] heard from other people, including other students and professors. [They] believe some cases are more well known than others, there’s one particular case that [they] asked about even outside of the McGill context [the latest case in the department of Islamic Studies].
  • Justine*, a Political Science student,“started hearing about specific predatory [behavior] in 2013 when [they were] in undergrad. [They] wanted to take a specific course by *** ****** and was told by a few of [their] friends that he was a bit creepy. [They] also knew of the first year Psychology professor that needed [note: he doesn’t need but chooses] to do his office hours in Gerts because of previous sexual misconduct issues.”
  • Saima Desai, a Faculty of Arts student from 2014 to 2017, wrote that they “first found out about accusations of sexual harassment (and more) against certain professors from friends in Islamic Studies. These were friends who had been organizing around addressing the actions of these professors. After that, [they] began mentioning it to friends in other faculties and departments, and found out that every single person (all of whom were women and nonbinary people) [they had] talked to knew of at least one professor in their department who was “creepy,” who they’d been warned about, or who a friend-of-a-friend had been harassed by. This included at least two professors in Biology, one in International Development, and a handful in other Arts departments – maybe a total of six, from [their] brief period of inquiry. [They] found that while whisper networks existed for students within departments, they didn’t always spread between faculties – so, for example, [they were] only able to access the whisper networks within the Biology department because [they] had once studied Biology. But, for the most part, students in Arts faculties didn’t have access to the information about Biology professors – potentially putting them at risk if they were to take a Biology elective, for example.” Upon knowing one of their professors was notorious for being “creepy” Saima “never went to his office hours or met with him outside of class, even though [they] knew [their] work was suffering as a result. Professors who harass students impact not only our physical and emotional safety, but our learning as well.”
  • Malek*, a fourth year student in the Faculty of Arts, believed that the word of mouth system worked within “a large circle of people.” “Often, it would be substantiated through describing a female student’s experience with the professor in question. Three professors were named. Two of them were more known by the student body and administration, ******* (WIMESSA) and ****** (Poli Sci), but ******* (Poli Sci) is less known. Mostly students in upper years are aware of this information.” Additionally, “As a survivor, [they] often ha[d] to choose [their] class around which professors would be accommodating to [their] mental health/PTSD (which already limit[ed] [their] options), so [they] do this with [their] Political Science department advisor, whom [they] disclosed to. Registering for ******’s class was suggested to [them] as an option, however, [they] indicated that [they] wouldn’t be comfortable as he partakes in inappropriate/predatory relations with his female students, to which [their] department advisor dismissed [their] claims/concerns by asking if [they] [were] sure it wasn’t just rumours spreading. [They were] upset by her response as she knew [they were] a survivor and how difficult it is to navigate McGill following these experiences. Moreover, she expressed no shock or surprise when [they] did tell her about [their] concerns with ****** which indicate[d] to [them] that this wasn’t new information for her. This shows how the administration works to protect abusive professors by discrediting survivors/students.”

These underground systems of communication and disclosure between students come as no surprise given the current reporting policy. When requested to explain the current policy for reports of sexual violence committed by professors, SSMU VP External Connor Spencer wrote to us:

“Normally a student, when making a complaint around sexual violence, would refer to the Policy Against Sexual Violence that was passed by the McGill Senate on December 1, 2016. However, because this policy is not a stand-alone policy and instead refers to the Code of Student Conduct, students cannot pursue complaints against faculty through this policy. Instead, they can refer to the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination — which is a stand-alone policy — where an assessor, who may or may not have training in sexual violence, would receive their complaint and assess whether or not there is enough for them to go through a formal process. This policy, however, does not cover sexual assault, which would instead be processed through section nine of the Regulations Relating to the Employment of Tenure Track and Tenured Academic Staff.  Yet, [these regulations are part of] another policy over 20 pages long. All formal complaints are sent to the dean of the faculty where the academic staff is employed. How complicated, hidden, and inaccessible this process is, is shown by the fact that on the OSVRSE site there is a flowchart explaining how to report a complaint against a student, but none for how to file a complaint against academic staff.”

The process to report sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by professors is both convoluted and disjointed, as its steps are located across multiple jargony documents. It is nothing short of dysfunctional. Survivors deserve better. We deserve better. Without usable systems to hold professors accountable in place, students have been forced to implement their own peer-based warning system.

Without usable systems to hold professors accountable in place, students have been forced to implement their own peer-based warning system.

It seems to be that word of mouth, which is far from offering the protection of a stand-alone policy, is the only available system for students to protect themselves. McGill is guilty of nurturing a culture of gendered and sexual violence on campus by relying on a deeply flawed policy to report sexual harassment perpetrated by professors, and for responding poorly when reports of sexual violence at the hands of professors are submitted. The McGill administration hasn’t established a system that protects students in these situations, forcing students to resort to measures such as, illegal, public accusations against professors on stickers posted in McGill buildings. These are only the first symptoms of the deeply rooted student discontent and distrust in McGill administration’s intentions regarding gendered and sexual violence on campus.

This lack of trust in the administration has only been further bolstered by the administration’s insufficient response to SSMU’s request for a third-party investigation into the mismanagement of sexual violence allegations against professors within the Faculty of Arts. McGill administration’s response has been both inappropriate and, quite frankly, insulting. They first issued an overly generalized and standardized statement on McGill’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Later and more notably, Vice-Principal Manfredi’s individually addressed a statement to SSMU VP External Connor Spencer, dismissing the claims made in the petition and the gravity of the sheer number of signatures acquired. Vice-Principal Manfredi’s individual address conveniently neglected that more than 1,000 students and 40 student associations signed the petition at the time of his response. These actions are an insult to the student body. Not only was the petition moved by SSMU at large and not Spencer individually, but also it has received wide support across the entire student body.

 

Vice Principal Manfredi’s individual address to SSMU VP External Connor Spencer, with the copied text highlighted

 

Vice Principal Manfredi’s response to the student petition requesting a third-party investigation into the administration’s mismanagement of sexual harassment cases. The highlights show the two font sizes, the second being a copy from Manfredi’s individual address to SSMU VP External Connor Spencer.

The final response sent by the administration five days later on April 10, was yet another standardized statement about the general policy procedure with an added copy and paste (see image above) of Vice-Principal Manfredi’s message to Spencer (a mistake made clear by the fact that the font style and size of the later portion of the message had not even been changed). The administration’s response claims that “our University does not tolerate sexual misconduct in any form,” but the continued presence of professors commonly known to be predators indicates otherwise. The McGill community deserves a response that addresses the past and present failings of the administration, and actively supports survivors of gendered and sexual violence. McGill has to drop the act, and better agree to launch a third-party investigation into its mismanagement of cases of sexual violence, or find themselves hoisted by their own petard. This is bigger than another CBC article slamming McGill. The petition and the existence of this informal system of warnings between students are testaments to the pervasiveness of the violence perpetrated on our campus and McGill’s historic inaction. We deserve change. And we are demanding it now.  

The survey entries have been edited for clarity.

*those names have been changed for anonymity

If you want to add your testimony to the survey about the informal system of warning between peers, we are still interested in hearing from you, simply click here!

You can sign the open letter calling for an external investigation into the office of the Dean of Arts here.

Conversations around gendered and sexual violence can be difficult, upsetting, re-traumatizing, and scary. There are a variety of emotions that come from experiences of gendered and sexual violence and conversations concerning them. Yours are valid. When McGill doesn’t listen, peer-based support services will.

You can find more information on The Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS)’s services here and here.

You can find more information on reporting, disclosures, and legal action at McGill here.