After Sexual Misconduct Allegations, Concordia Owes Some Apologies
The School’s Response Leaves Something to be Desired
Since Mike Spry published a blog post on the toxic culture of the Creative Writing program at Concordia on Jan. 8, the university—particularly the English department—has been in a state of chaos.
In the first few days after the post was made public, students eagerly questioned each other about what they knew about the issue, and professors gave reassuring statements to their classes. In terms of concrete information about the controversy and the specific steps the school was going to take, students were mostly in the dark, forced to piece the story together from verbal claims, posts on social media and articles—some much older than Spry’s piece—on other media outlets.
Later that day, President Alan Shepherd issued an official statement in which he echoed the response that he gave in 2015 to another case of harassment at Concordia regarding a student who went by the pseudonym Mei-Ling. In that instance he regretted the incident, and said that he “requested a review of our sexual assault policy” but also reminded students that they “have resources available to them when such issues arise.”
He made the same statement in response to Spry’s post, saying that the allegations “will be treated seriously”, but also took the opportunity to remind students that “[Concordia] continues to improve [its] efforts to prevent sexual violence and harassment, and to respond effectively when it does happen.” He went on to iterate all of the steps that Concordia has taken to “strengthen the safety of our learning and working environment.”
I felt that a response to harassment allegations wasn’t the best place to cite how great the school is at preventing/handling harassment, especially when so many accounts mentioned that they did come forward and their claims were not handled adequately.
Heather O’Neill, writer and Concordia alumnus, was quoted in the Montreal Gazette saying that students getting harassed by teachers at Concordia is not at all a new thing, as she herself experienced it when she attended the university over 20 years ago. She acknowledged that this kind of behaviour is, and has been, an open-secret among students and some faculty at Concordia. Stephen Henighan, a writer and professor at University of Guelph agreed, saying: “It’s been an open-secret for 20 years.”
What was missing from president Alan Shepard’s response—and has been absent from all of the school’s discourse around the subject thus far—is an acknowledgement of the open-secret aspect of harassment culture in the Creative Writing department.
In one press conference, Alan Shepard did state that he is sorry that students “experienced the things they’re reporting,” but then mentioned that “these are early days” and “we’ve just received these complaints and we’re moving as fast as we can to address them.” Shepard should have instead acknowledged and apologized for the culture of harassment that has been allowed to flourish in the English department for decades, and admitted to the school’s negligence to properly address those issues in the past.
But Shepard denies ever having known about the harassment culture there, saying “I wasn’t aware—if I had been aware, I would have acted sooner.” This seems unlikely, but even if he wasn’t aware of the Creative Writing program’s harassment problem until now, he should at least acknowledge that somebody at the university knew.
Several posts on Twitter—such as a thread by Hillary Rexe (now deleted), which named her harasser and the person at the school that she reported her case to by name—claim that issues of harassment were reported at Concordia, but were either dismissed or were not taken seriously. We can also look at the cases of Emma Healey in 2014 or Mei-Ling in 2015, who both went public with detailed accounts of their experiences with harassment at Concordia, but saw little action from the school.
The university needs to swallow its pride and take responsibility for the harassment culture that has permeated the Creative Writing department for so long. They need to acknowledge that the current systems in place that aim to prevent and handle cases of sexual harassment are obviously inadequate, and apologize to students for their lived experiences navigating a toxic and dangerous climate in their academic institution.
Shepard and other people speaking on behalf of the university need to stop defending themselves on the basis that they were unaware, and acknowledge the fact that someone knew—that Concordia as an entity knew, and strategically did nothing. When proper responsibility is taken instead of petty deflections, then students will trust the institution and we can collectively work to build a safer space for everyone.
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