Climate Review of the Department of English of Concordia University: A Path Forward
Me Pierrette Rayle, Retired Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal
Alain Reid, MPs, CHRP, Partner, Business Psychologist
François Rabbat, PhD, Organizational Psychologist
In January 2018, President and Vice-Chancellor Alan Shepard announced that Concordia University would be taking several steps in response to a number of allegations of sexual misconduct at the University and notably, within the Department of English.
First, was the creation of a Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence. Second, specific allegations would be thoroughly investigated by independent third parties. Third, a climate review of the working and learning environment of the Department of English would be conducted and carried out by SPB Organizational Psychology in cooperation with Me Pierrette Rayle, retired Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal. The present report stems from that third initiative, the Climate Review.
For ease of reference, we (Me Rayle and SPB Organizational Psychology) decided to jointly present the findings of the climate review and our recommendations without explicitly attributing any specific finding(s) or opinion(s) to either party.
The mandate of the Climate Review was to solicit and listen to input from students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the Department of English in order to fully hear and understand any issues and concerns related to the overall culture and climate of the Department of English, including issues related to sexual misconduct of any kind. The objective, following the assessment of the climate, was to make appropriate recommendations with a view to promoting a safe and respectful learning, teaching, working and research environment for all. It goes without saying that providing such an environment is one of the most fundamental obligations of the University towards its students, faculty and staff.
In the course of this mandate, we also concentrated efforts on relationships that could be qualified as consensual, romantic, sexual, power imbalance relationships (i.e. one having some form of control, influence or supervisory function over the other) that give rise to real or perceived conflicts of interest. Not all relationships that might develop on campus were under scrutiny. We did not focus on peer-to-peer relationships between faculty of different departments, in administration or between students.
We used a three-pronged approach in the completion of our mandate which included: (i) individual interviews with various members of the University’s community; (ii) an anonymous, tailored, online survey containing closed and open-ended questions sent to all students, faculty members, staff and alumni of the Department of English; and (iii) confidential phone or videoconference conversations with students and alumni who wanted to share additional information.
The Climate Review was conducted between April 23rd and September 14, 2018, and 109 individuals chose to participate out of a potential of 3,228 individuals. The pool of 109 participants was comprised of 32 students1 (of 985 students), 17 faculty members (of 72 faculty members), 3 staff members (of 9 staff members) and 57 alumni of the Department of English (of 2,162 emails that were sent).
The survey questions and results are found on Appendix 1. The completed surveys and the specific information contained therein or shared separately by the participants are confidential. Only the denominalized and aggregated data was shared with the University.
Note of caution
We must caution the reader that the results of the survey only represent the views and perceptions of a small number of participants. This limits the ability of the authors of this report to generalize our findings with respect to the individuals who did not participate in the Climate Review. However, we were still able to assess the climate of the Department of English and make recommendations based upon the data gathered during the course of the Climate Review.
While the views and perceptions of a small number of participants lead us to our findings below, it must be noted that there were a significant number of respondents who spoke favourably about their experiences in the Department of English and about faculty members who had a profoundly positive impact upon their experience at the University. The findings indicate that there are only a small number of faculty members who have engaged in inappropriate and unacceptable conduct. This report should not in any way detract from the positive experiences reported by the respondents or the efforts and commendable work of most of the faculty members of the Department of English who are committed and professional professors.
It should also be noted that of the respondents who are current students, the survey results indicate that negative experiences referred to in the survey have decreased, most in a material way, compared to the reported experiences of alumni. In fact, many current students who responded to the survey confirmed that they have not had any of the negative experiences described in the survey.
1 A participant was considered a student if he or she was registered in an academic program of the Department of English as of April 2018.
Based upon the survey results, respondents had the perception that the climate of the Department of English was unhealthy at the time of the Climate Review and that departmental culture and practices did not promote healthy relationships.
According to the information gathered, we have identified the following four (4) issues as potentially factoring into the participants’ perception of the climate of the Department of English:
- Real or perceived acts of sexual violence committed by faculty members;
- Real or perceived instances of favoritism and conflict of interest;
- Mistrust towards the institution in the handling of complaints; and
- Perceived discrimination and hostility.
Our mandate was not to investigate or substantiate any specific matter or allegation concerning individuals, but to assess the climate of the Department of English as a whole. Common shared perceptions of an unhealthy climate, whether accurate or not, can be detrimental to the climate of any organization.
For the purposes of the present Climate Review, we used, as does the University in its policies, a broad definition of sexual violence, which encompasses any type of misconduct of a sexual nature ranging from unwanted advances to sexual assault.
As appears from the table found on Appendix 1, it has been reported by students and alumni, with a higher number of incidents reported among alumni, that certain faculty members have, over time, committed various forms of sexual violence. In our opinion, these reported incidents of sexual violence are at the heart of the unhealthy climate of the Department of English.
We were able to identify the following situational factors where acts of sexual violence were more prevalently reported:
- Certain faculty members have held some classes in bars, had parties at their houses, invited students for drinks or consumed alcohol or drugs with students or incited students to consume alcohol or drugs. Some students reported that these situations have, on occasion, led to sexual misconduct being committed, to inappropriate fraternizing or to professional and personal boundaries being blurred. There are many unacceptable issues that can arise in the context of such activities. We have difficultly seeing any academic or pedagogical value in pursuing such activities and it goes without saying that they should be prohibited by the University.
We obviously do not intend to suggest prohibiting any form of acceptable social gatherings involving faculty members and students such as retirement receptions and other celebratory gatherings or appropriate pedagogical or academic activities that are held outside of the University’s premises such as field school activities and the like. That being said, we noticed that there are no clear and explicit guidelines establishing under what conditions a class could be given outside of the University’s premises.
- Other activities, events or ventures, not officially associated with the University, such as study programs abroad and literary publications were also mentioned as sources for the transgression of professional boundaries and for sexual misconduct to occur. If there are any such activities in the future, faculty members must be informed of the University’s expectations with respect to their conduct in such context.
In parallel to the situational factors described above, there appears to be a solidly rooted whisper network at work in the Department of English where past and recent incidents are discussed between students and communicated to new students. The existence of the whisper network underlines the lack of trust that certain students have in the University’s handling of these matters as described below.
The Climate Review also revealed that faculty members and staff are sometimes made aware of their colleagues’ misconduct but are unsure of how to act or are hesitant to do so. Clear expectations, training and guidelines stemming from the University’s highest authority must be put into place to encourage proactivity in this regard. In order for a change of culture to take place, faculty members and staff of the Department of English or any other individual who witnesses any form of misconduct must proactively report any such wrongdoing. As stated above, providing a safe and secure environment is a fundamental obligation of the University.
The Code of Rights and Responsibilities states in paragraph 2 that no member “shall condone any conduct which adversely affects the University or any of its Members” and also further provides in paragraph 5 that “All Members are expected to refrain from violating the Code and those who have supervisory authority over others bear a particular responsibility to act in a timely and effective manner when they become aware of any alleged violation of the Code”. It is unacceptable for faculty members and staff, including those in leadership positions, to look the other way or to wait for a student to file a complaint. Every member of the community has a role to play in promoting a safe and secure environment.
The climate of the Department of English is also explained by a perception that there is favoritism towards certain students by some faculty members and an inappropriate use of the latter’s power.
Many faculty members in the Department of English enjoy professional success. As a result of this professional recognition, they have important connections within the literary community. Some faculty members also hold influential positions in other literary endeavours. For students, obtaining practical experience, such as having their work published, being nominated or selected for various literary competitions or being offered teaching or research assistantships and internships, can play an integral role in the pursuit of a successful career as an academic or as a professional writer. These can be significant opportunities for students which can be impacted, either positively or negatively, by faculty members who must be free from any real or perceived conflict of interest when playing any role in the attribution of such opportunities to students. Access to these opportunities are perceived by some students as being controlled by certain faculty members acting as “gatekeepers” to a world that is otherwise inaccessible to young writers. Some alumni reported having been offered access to influential third parties in exchange for, or in expectation of sexual favours. Although no current student who participated in the survey reported such inappropriate behaviour, this situation can promote the belief for a student that they need to befriend their professor in order to obtain or to have a greater chance of obtaining such opportunities.
Many student respondents also mentioned that some faculty members engaged in flirtatious behaviours with students. These students, fearing potential consequences on their grades or careers can feel pressured to respond positively to the unwanted flirtation. The fear of potential consequences is exacerbated for any student involved in a romantic or sexual relationship with a faculty member. Some students perceived there to be favoritism towards other students in certain instances. When a relationship between an instructor and a student exists, the perception of favoritism by others is reinforced. This does not mean that a student close to a specific faculty member who received one of these advantages did not earn it. However, the lack of guidelines and specific criteria are sufficient to foster a climate where there is a perception that students who are closest to some faculty members benefit from certain opportunities.
A romantic or sexual relationship between a student and someone in authority is a deviation from the duties and responsibilities of the person in authority. It puts the person in authority in a situation of conflict of interest, real or perceived. It puts the student in a real or perceived position of having an advantage. The University recently enacted the Consensual Romantic or Sexual Relationship Guidelines in accordance with the Code of Ethics and Safe Disclosure Policy Applicable to Employees of Concordia University. The objective was to further clarify what constitutes a real or perceived conflict of interest pertaining to romantic or sexual relationships between instructors and students and to put into place a clear disclosure process. These important rules should be regularly communicated and diligently applied.
We believe that any consensual romantic or sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student threatens the mission of the University to provide a safe and secure learning and working environment, independent of the fact that they are labelled as consensual. Considering that the University is the primary guardian of its mission, it must ensure that any and all such romantic or sexual relationships be disclosed immediately. The burden of reporting falls upon the person in authority, where it belongs. Although the conditions which would trigger a disclosure should not require any explanation, the climate review has led us to conclude that such explanation is, unfortunately, required. Two (2), and only two (2), easily identifiable and objective facts trigger the immediate dual obligation for a faculty member to disclose and the obligation for the University to immediately implement the necessary and appropriate measures to remedy the real or perceived conflict of interest (which may include removing the faculty member from their supervisory role): (1) a romantic or sexual relationship has occurred; and (2) the faculty member is in a position of power or authority over the student.
It is imperative that any instructor involved in a romantic or sexual relationship with a student immediately suspend all evaluative exercises of the student who is involved in that relationship and immediately discloses that relationship using a prescribed form. These actions will ensure that any reasonable academic accommodation required to address the real or perceived conflict of interest be implemented without delay. The University has the obligation to safeguard the pedagogical relationship and as such, it must ensure that the student involved in the romantic or sexual relationship is being evaluated objectively and impartially and that the interests of all concerned are protected. In our opinion, suspension of all evaluative exercises of a student must occur as soon as a conflict of interest arises and disclosure of the relationship must be made no later than two (2) business days of the conflict of interest arising. For example, if a faculty member discovers on the first day of class that a student with whom he or she previously had a consensual romantic or sexual relationship is in his or her class, suspension of all evaluative exercises of that student must occur immediately and disclosure of the conflict of interest must occur by no later than two (2) business days following that discovery. There are obviously a multitude of other ways in which conflicts of interest can arise and these must, as stated above, be disclosed immediately.
It goes without saying that the fact that a faculty member has disclosed what he or she considers to be a consensual romantic or sexual relationship does not in any way preclude the student who is the object of that disclosure from viewing the relationship differently and availing him/herself of the range of remedies available.
That being said, the legislator, when it enacted Bill 151, An Act to Prevent and Fight Sexual Violence in Higher Education Institutions decided against prohibiting romantic or sexual relationships between instructors and students. We believe that, even when the conflict of interest can be adequately managed, there is no place for any romantic or sexual relationship between an instructor and his or her student. The potential for abuse or seriously damaging misunderstandings are far too frequent and serious. Although we would have liked to have seen the legislator take a step further and expressly prohibit those relationships, the University must work within the legal framework that exists.
Many students who participated in the survey reported that faculty members demonstrated inappropriate behaviours when teaching in class. These behaviours were perceived by them as insensitive or discriminating (students feeling that they were not heard, yelling at or berating students in class or mocking their work, using offensive or racist language or marginalizing issues related to sexual or gender identity). There is a continuum of misconduct with varying degrees of intensity ranging from disrespectful comments to sexual violence. The insensitive behaviours described above seem to be perceived by some students as being part of that continuum and as constituting the most visible facet of some faculty members’ disregard for student well-being. It also seems that some professors have difficulties in adequately managing classroom discussions around sensitive issues. That being said, many respondents report having had professional, devoted and respectful professors.
In our opinion, some of these issues are, in part, explained by the generational differences in students and evolving socially acceptable norms. These challenges are not unique and seem to be in line with situations observed on campuses elsewhere in North America. Faculty members must be sensitized to these issues.
Disrespectful behaviour is contrary to the University’s objective to be thought-provoking, to spark debates and to challenge ideas all the while promoting a positive learning environment for students. We reiterate that it rests upon the University to provide a safe and secure working and learning environment and to set the standards with respect to what is appropriate in any communications.
Data gathered during the Climate Review indicates that, for many students who responded to the survey, there is mistrust towards the University as a result of the inappropriate behaviours described in the previous sections as well as in how it handled complaints of misconduct of any kind.
For many participants, this mistrust originates from a perceived inaction on the part of the University and the fact that the University appears only to have taken concrete steps to address certain misbehaviours once certain allegations became public. There is also a perception shared by others who believe that the University knew or ought to have known about these alleged inappropriate behaviours for a significant period of time.
There also seems to be mistrust towards the institutional resources available to them. As appears from Appendix 1, the confidence pertaining to the institutional resources and reporting processes as well as the understanding of these processes are relatively low. Students reported receiving conflicting information regarding processes, timelines, various required steps to file complaints and to process or investigate these complaints or have reported having had difficulties to obtain accurate information in this regard. All of this information should be available to students at the outset of any matter. To illustrate this point, some students reported their understanding with respect to criteria required to file complaints and these criteria appear to be contradicted by the University’s policies and procedures. Some faculty members also confirm not possessing great knowledge of the particulars related to reporting options. Some students report having received mixed messages or inaccurate information from the institution and from faculty members in this regard.
Moreover, students have reported fearing reprisals from faculty members against whom they file complaints. These fears are exacerbated by the power imbalance and the impact that the faculty members can have over a student’s academic and/or professional career as described in the previous section.
In our opinion, mistrust also originates from the fact that students are not informed of the outcome of a complaint in which they are involved. We understand that students and complainants feel frustrated when they are not provided with all of the information following the conclusion of a complaint or an investigation. We can appreciate why a complainant would want to have this information when they have experienced wrongdoing. We also regret, again, that the legislator, when it enacted Bill 151, An Act to Prevent and Fight Sexual Violence in Higher Education Institutions did not go so far as to relieve universities from their obligations of privacy and confidentiality regarding employment matters following allegations of sexual violence.
It should also be noted that the different sources of mistrust described in the present section could explain why students go on social media to voice their concerns instead of using official channels.
The concerns regarding the lack of knowledge appear to echo those that were noted by the Task Force. We believe that the recommendations made by the Task Force regarding education, training and communications are critical. Students must be informed of the resources that are available to them and faculty members and staff must be aware of the reporting options in order to provide the appropriate support and direction to students. It is incumbent upon the University to promote and make its community aware of its mission, policies and resources so as to safeguard fundamental values. During the completion of our mandate, we noticed that the University promotes the rules and obligations pertaining to the Academic Code of Conduct in various ways and that it has a page of the University’s website solely dedicated to this matter. We believe that similar awareness campaigns and tools should be used to better explain the various reporting options available to students.
Over the years, the University has adopted certain policies and rules which reflect its mission and promote civility, equity, respect, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity. The Code of Rights and Responsibilities, Code of Ethics and Safe Disclosure Policy Applicable to Employees of Concordia University and its Consensual Romantic or Sexual Relationship Guidelines, the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Psychological Harassment and the Policy regarding Sexual Violence constitute examples of such policies.
The University also makes available numerous resources for its students and employees who have experienced misconduct of any kind such as the Office of Rights and Responsibilities, the Sexual Assault Resource Centre and the Campus Wellness & Support Services.
We recognize that these concrete initiatives are relevant solutions that address the issues described in the present report. In order to further improve the climate of the Department of English, we recommend that the University build upon what has already been put into place and implement the recommendations made by the Task Force as well as the recommendations set forth below:
1. The University must actively promote all of its values of civility, equity, respect, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity. The University must ensure that all faculty members, staff, students, new employees and members of the community are made aware of these values. The University must assert its commitment that it will not tolerate any form of misconduct and continue to undertake to implement any and all appropriate measures. There must be one clear message as to what is expected from all and that misconduct will not be tolerated.
2. Educational and prevention training of faculty members and staff should, if it does not already, include the following items :
- The University’s fundamental values enshrined in its policies;
- The notion of what constitutes a romantic or sexual relationship (i.e. including a single date or sexual encounter);
- Guidance on the notion and requirement for consent and what can impact upon consent;
- Education regarding the complexities and responsibilities involving power imbalance relationships;
- The applicable processes of any disclosure of any conflict of interest and removal of supervisory functions (i.e. a disclosure must be made immediately);
- The consequences and sanctions resulting from a lack of, or a delayed disclosure; and
- Sensitivity training on newly emerging cultural issues.
3. Faculty members and staff should receive additional education or training with respect to the various formal and informal reporting options or resources available to students who have experienced any form of misconduct. Faculty members and staff should also be aware as to how to properly deal with and support a student coming forward with a complaint.
Any faculty member or staff that is newly assigned to a position in authority within the Department of English should receive additional in-depth training in this regard.
4. Not only should students also be the subject of additional awareness campaigns regarding the various informal and formal reporting options, the University should also ensure that the information pertaining to applicable processes for these options be readily available to students and clearly explained at the outset of any complaint.
5. The University should assign a contact person (liaison function) for complainants involved in ongoing investigations in order to share information and answer questions regarding processes.
6. New hires should read, accept and sign all relevant policies, including those pertaining to romantic and sexual relationships between instructors and students. The University should also ensure that these policies and the values contained in them are well understood by any new hire. There should be a particular emphasis regarding the University’s fundamental values, the Consensual Romantic or Sexual Relationship Guidelines, conflict of interest, obligations and consequences in this regard, the University’s obligation to provide its community with a safe and secure environment and the serious impact of any failure to do so.
7. In order to reduce perceived favoritism, the Department of English should develop and implement a selection process for publication opportunities, writing awards, employment opportunities and internships. Mixed juries or blind selection of works are some examples of what could be considered by the Department of English. The University should be mindful of the importance of providing equal opportunities for all students and a clearly defined selection process.
8. The University should prohibit holding classes in bars.
9. The University should create explicit guidelines regarding social gatherings attended by students and faculty members (including a statement to the effect that no faculty member should ever incite a student to consume alcohol or drugs).
10. The University should create explicit guidelines establishing under what conditions classes can be given outside of the University’s premises.
11. The Standing Committee on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence should, in two (2) years, conduct a review of the climate of the Department of English in order to assess the state of the climate and take any appropriate actions.
12. The University should organize a workshop with the Department of English faculty members and staff to discuss the present recommendations and to provide training and education on all of the issues at the origin of the Climate Review.
13. The Standing Committee on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Violence should be mandated to review and implement the present recommendations.
On our behalf as well as on behalf of the University, we wish to thank all of the individuals who participated in the Climate Review or provided any form of assistance. In particular, we express specific gratitude towards the respondents who demonstrated unparalleled strength and courage in sharing difficult and personal experiences.