The Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) held a press conference Thursday morning to address the issue of sexual violence allegations against professors within several departments in the Faculty of Arts. The press conference followed an open letter that was circulated amongst the student body early this week. The letter drew the support of fifty-seven student associations as well as over one thousand individual student signatories and counting.
The letter, signed by the SSMU Executive, demands that an investigation be opened into the Office of the Dean of Arts to address the Faculty’s handling of sexual violence complaints against Arts professors.
The letter alleges that the Dean’s Office has insufficiently dealt with such complaints on a systemic basis, instead “citing lack of formal complaints or ongoing committee work as reason for not immediately addressing concerns.”
The letter continues with a six-point mandate for the investigation, which would include conducting interviews with students and faculty, as well as proposing robust changes to the way in which sexual violence complaints are currently addressed.
SSMU VP External Connor Spencer opened the press conference by noting that SSMU’s open letter came as a result of “frustration working with administration on [sexual violence policy] where we felt we were given excuses and had deadlines pushed off further and further.”
“As student on this campus, we have a duty to protect our friends, to protect each other,” Spencer said. “[The administration] should focus on the [sexual violence] complaint process itself as a problem, as contributing to a culture of folks not wanting to come forward or file complaint for fear of legal action being taken against them, risks to their academic careers, and above all that the university would do nothing with their complaints.”
Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) VP Academic Madeline Wilson and VP Internal Rebecca Scarra took to the podium to call for the administration to develop a process for responding to survivors’ allegations that is more effective and empathetic. “These current processes that are available are difficult to navigate and inaccessible,” Scarra said. “When a system that has been in place for so long doesn’t work, we need to change the system.”
The Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), a student-run sexual violence support organization, provides training and support work, and engages in advocacy for students suffering from the effects of sexual violence within the university.
At Thursday’s press conference, SACOMSS spokesperson Maeve Botham said that upon entering McGill, she was warned by older students about professors who engage in predatory behavior.
“Students know who these professors are; the university knows who these professors are. By not taking any action, McGill is failing our students,” Botham said. “Students have a right to be safe on campus. They have a right to go to class, to office hours, to their labs, without fear of experiencing sexual violence.”
McGill Provost Christopher Manfredi issued a response on April 4 that was addressed solely to SSMU VP External Connor Spencer. Manfredi’s letter maintained that McGill provides “extensive resources, skilled staff, and robust policies to address matters of sexual violence and to support survivors.” The note went on to say that “every report or complaint of misconduct that contains sufficient details is investigated.”
Spencer disagrees with Manfredi’s claims, arguing that the university contends to be taking action on the issue of sexual violence, but that this action takes too long and meets too many roadblocks along the way.
“I think McGill is very good at the reactive [response] and not so great at the proactive [response],” Spencer said. “I’m hoping we see a change in tone in the response from McGill University.”