Concordia to investigate sexual misconduct allegations in creative writing program
Concordia University says it is taking steps to address allegations of pervasive sexual misconduct in its creative writing program.
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Concordia President Alan Shepard said that all forms of sexual misconduct will not be tolerated, adding that the university is launching an investigation into the claims, and will also launch a university-wide task force into the environment at Concordia, particularly with respect to sexual harassment.
The new measures come after allegations surfaced in a blog post by author and former student Mike Spry that he has witnessed and been made aware of instances of groping, inappropriate remarks and propositions.
Spry claims that when these men in a powerful position were rejected by young women, they would often instigate whisper campaigns and denigrate those who rejected them. Spry declined to provide additional comment to CTV.
Shepard said despite trying to be pro-active to protect the safety of students at the school, he is “disappointed to be here today saying to you that it may not have been enough.”
He vowed to meet with students, faculty and staff in the department to “listen, support and chart a path forward.”
The university president said that as an investigation is underway, he would not name any professors in the complaints.
“These are complicated matters and you have to proceed with care,” he said, adding that “People facing allegations also deserve due process” and that “we take the allegations seriously.”
Mixed feelings from novelist Heather O’Neill
Acclaimed Montreal novelist Heather O’Neill, a graduate of the Concordia creative writing department, says she has mixed feelings that Concordia is only now looking into allegations of sexual misconduct within the department.
O’Neill, who is the award-winning author of the 2006 book Lullabies for Little Criminals, said she faced sexual misconduct by a creative writing professor when she was a student in the department 20 years ago. O’Neill said that while many in the literary community are pleased that the allegations are finally being recognized, they are also irked that it took a post written by a man for the matter to be taken seriously.
O'Neill said she has been aware of many allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment of female students, including a blog post by a young woman who describes her own experience.
“And now all of a sudden yesterday a male wrote a blog post and to our horror, that has generated a response from (Shepard). So there are mixed feelings about the statement yesterday.”
Shepard said it was the first he’s heard of the so-called ‘open secret.’
“I acted about it on Monday afternoon because I heard about it Monday afternoon,” he said. “I’ve been reading it was an open secret, but it was not an open secret to me. I do my best to pay attention to open secrets, but I wasn’t aware.”
Shephard said Concordia was already reviewing its policies concerning sexual misconduct, after the Quebec government recently tabled a bill requiring post-secondary institutions to do so.
If passed, the legislation will require schools to establish a policy by September 2019 to prevent and fight sexual violence and develop guidelines for intimate relationships between students and faculty.
'It horrifies me'
O’Neill alleges that there has long been a culture of female students in the department who had “horror tales of teachers trying to sleep with them.”
“It horrifies me and it needs to stop at Concordia,” said O’Neill, who called for an immediate inquest into the allegations and hopes to hear of resignations.
“They need to change the program so it’s unacceptable for 50-year-old professors to be sleeping with 21-year-old students. I don’t ever want to hear about that at Concordia. I’m still hearing about it now,” she said.
Shepard reminded students they are encouraged to come forward and report any form of sexual misconduct.
“This attitude that now it’s up to the women to file complaints and to come forward – no. We’ve done that. We’ve been doing that for 20 years,” said O’Neill, adding. “I have not been quiet about it, but there has never been any reaction. It is well documented online.”
O’Neill said from speaking with young women in the department, that the problem is just as pervasive today as it was in the 1990s.
“For me, I can’t believe it has gone on this long. I can’t believe it was not frowned upon,” she said, adding that if there is an inquiry it’s “going to shock the city.”
In his statement Monday, Shepard said “our society is making a fundamental shift in its response to such allegations and behaviours. This shift is long overdue and critically important to all of us,” adding that “Over the past several years, Concordia University has taken several steps to strengthen the safety of our learning and working environment. “
O’Neill said it was not just the victims who told her of the inappropriate culture within the department, but that she heard it from a male professor herself. She said she asked one creative writing professor who told her that male teachers in the department sleep with students often, adding that that same professor spoke with adulation about a particular professor. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen a man who was able to score so many beautiful women. We were in awe of him,’” she recalled. “How is that acceptable?”
O’Neill said the professors who slept with students typically also had clout within the literary community and were revered for their work.
“How else are you going to end up getting a 21-year-old to a bar with you without dangling some chance of publication?” said O’Neill.
O'Neill says her professor made sexual advances
O’Neill said that in 1999, while she was a 24-year-old graduate student in the department, she was sexually harassed by a professor in his 50s, who told her he was interested in publishing her poetry.
“He said he really admired my talent and we needed to discuss which poems he would choose to publish in the magazine,” she said, adding that the professor suggested they meet for a drink at a bar. The suggestion itself, she said, was not unusual.
“At Concordia it was considered absolutely acceptable to drink with the professors after the class and it was also seen as a fundamental way of networking,” she said, adding that those who did not partake in extra-curricular “networking” were seen as “irrelevant.”
After meeting the professor at the bar, O’Neill said her poems were not discussed at all.
“He made sexual advances toward me, which I rejected, but I rejected in such a cautious way. It was just horrible for me,” she said. “How do you reject their advances without immediately kiboshing your attempts to get published in the city of Montreal, in the anglophone scene?”
After five or six meetings with him that went the same way, O’Neill managed to get her work published – and he was assigned as editor. The alleged misconduct didn’t end there.
“He said his way of editing was to take the writer to his country house for the weekend. We would be totally isolated, so I was like, ‘There is no way I am going to the middle of the woods with you.’ He was so aggressive. It was well known,” she said.
O’Neill ultimately had a friend edit that book, but says to this day the experience makes her feel ill.
“It left me with such low self-esteem and feelings about myself as a poet that I didn’t know if I was being published for my own merits and because of all the hard work I had done, or because I was involved in some sick quid pro quo situation and the only reason anyone was paying any attention to me was because I was in my 20s and it all had to do with being sexualized,” she said.
“I didn’t understand why this had to be part of my university experience. I didn’t understand why this had to be part of the publishing experience, when all the male students that I knew were being treated with respect, were offered mentorships,” she said.
O’Neill said she didn’t report the case to the school at the time, because she felt shame and guilt, that she was somehow complicit because she wanted to be published.
Shift in culture
Now, though, O’Neill said she is hopeful there is a shift in the culture, partly thanks to the #metoo movement.
“Before, young women who reported this were seen as whiney and bitter, trying to get in the way of some talented man’s career,” she said of the victims.
“It has finally changed,” she said. “I just know there’s going to be a reckoning.”
CTV's Vanessa Lee also contributed to this report