Concordia University needs a ‘do no harm’ policy on sexual misconduct

By her account, Céleste Parr had a constructive, friendly relationship with the male professor who led one of her creative writing classes at Concordia University. It was only after she graduated that the trouble began.

As the Toronto screenwriter recounted in a recent series of tweets, her married ex-prof kept in touch after she left the school, emailing her several invitations for social outings. At first she declined, and then stopped answering.

He then told her that he had weighed in against her getting a post at another institution, telling his colleagues there that “I wasn’t very forthcoming with my email responses,” Ms. Parr says. She didn’t get the job.

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“He was showing me that while he was no longer my professor, it still mattered to my academic career that I pay enough of the right kind of attention to him,” Ms. Parr writes.

Although he had always praised her work at Concordia, he also blocked an honour proposed by a prof at her grad school, saying her material was disappointing.

We don’t know the unnamed prof’s side of the story, but Ms. Parr’s account resembles others by women who have recently spoken up about sexual harassment at the school. They all describe an abusive culture whose tentacles reach into other schools and the broader literary community.

Concordia responded to the allegations by suspending two professors from teaching, promising a third-party investigation, and urging students who have experienced sexual harassment to file formal complaints. The utility of that last measure was put in doubt when former student Rudrapriya Rathore published a letter she and five other women sent to the university three years ago, about what they called the “toxic atmosphere” in the creative writing program.

“Many of us now feel uncomfortable and unsafe attending readings, events and seminars within the wider Montreal literary community because of Concordia professors’ involvement and place at the centre of that community,” the women wrote. “The silence surrounding the issue within our department has not only aggravated existing power relations between men and women and between professors and students, but has also perpetuated a harmful reality for young women by legitimizing these abuses of power.”

The women were met by an “employee relations adviser,” Ms. Rathore says, who told them that, without specific accusations against individuals, the school could do nothing.

Concordia University has said in a statement that the 2015 letter was handled appropriately, and the department did meet with the students, and has since adapted the way it deals with allegations of sexual misconduct.

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It’s very revealing that Concordia appears to have been unable at the time to see a way to process the women’s plea to change what they saw as a pervasive culture of harassment. The school insisted on particularizing the problem, implicitly following a “bad apples” model of complaint management.

It could have responded by launching meetings with small groups of students. It could have had facilitators ask them in confidence whether they felt safe in their learning situations, and if not, why not. It could have impressed upon faculty and the whole department that maintaining a hassle-free, non-sexualized environment was a vital mission for the university.

That can’t be done with a bad-apples model, which allows the institution to remain passive, and throws the burden of action onto a young student who may feel too vulnerable, confused and afraid to brand her professor a sexual predator.

It’s not even clear how far a formal complaint could go. Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities includes a definition of sexual harassment that encompasses the kind of off-campus meddling describing by Ms. Parr. But the university still has no overall policy concerning relations between faculty and students, and no prohibition against profs having sex with students. If a middle-aged instructor wants to abuse the trust bestowed on him by getting a 19-year-old freshman to sleep with him, the university has given itself no grounds to object.

A Concordia spokesperson said that a formal policy barring sexual relations is coming next week. It seems incredible that such a basic defence is only being rolled out now.

Instead of taking proactive steps years ago, the school allowed students to conclude that it didn’t see, didn’t hear, and didn’t care. The university could stand to adopt for itself the motto followed by physicians for centuries: “Do no harm.” Make that an institutional imperative and work back to the means for getting there, and the way out of this mess becomes much clearer.

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