More on Why UBC Should Have a Sexual Assault Policy

In a recent op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, my colleague, Jonathan Ichikawa, offered some reasons why universities should have sexual assault policies, rather than rely solely on the police and the justice system.  I want here to offer a framework for thinking about such reasons.

Universities are communities brought together for instruction in existing knowledge and the production of new knowledge.[1]  A thesis common to pretty much all varieties of social epistemology says that such communities are best able to achieve their goals when they are open, tolerant, and ethically well-functioning.  This is why faculty and students are right to concern themselves with issues such as systemic silencing of voices or structural bias against people of specific sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic origin, or other qualities immaterial to the pursuit of knowledge.  Students who are silenced or scared are not adequately integrated into the university community and cannot properly fulfill their own academic roles.  University faculty members have fought hard for academic freedom in order to achieve for themselves sufficient autonomy and security that they can properly fulfill their research and teaching roles.

So, with respect to sexual assault and other sexual misconduct within the university community, two points: First, anyone in a university community who has been assaulted or harassed by another member of the community has been harmed in a way contrary to the best workings of the community and, in all likelihood, lives in substantial fear of further harm.  Thus, anyone bringing forward an allegation of sexual assault by another member of community is alleging a substantial failure of duties of care within the community; we must act diligently not merely with concern for due process and justice but with concerns of care for the person bringing forward the allegations and the person(s) against whom the allegations have been raised.  This is the crux of the matter in some of the recent cases at UBC: duties of care toward those who brought forth allegations (and potentially others—including others who might have been put at risk by processes that give primary weight to confidentiality) were not properly attended to while the University investigated their cases.

Second, on matters of sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault, universities have, by all credible accounts, done a terrible job of achieving just, open, caring communities.  University campuses in Canada (and around the world) have an unsolved problem of sexual misconduct—many members of our communities act sexually from values our communities do not endorse and should not tolerate.  Indeed, universities have never done a very good job on these issues or on related matters of gender equality.  On these issues, we can work toward fairness, justice, and compassion without the slightest temptation to think that we are trying to bring back “the good old days.”  If burglary or murder within our community were as rife as is sexual misconduct, we’d need a burglary or murder policy.  We don’t. But a sexual assault policy, within a larger framework of appropriate sexual behaviour policies, helps solve a problem we genuinely have.[2]

Those of us who were brought up academically in the liberal arts tradition do not view advanced education simply as a route to a job or even as simply an opportunity for “pure,” disengaged intellectual pursuit.  A student entering UBC enters into our academic community. We hope to inspire our students to pursue the formation of open, tolerant, intellectually curious and rigorous communities throughout their lives.  The BC University Act specifies first the “convocation” of BC universities—which comprises the Chancellor, the President, the Senate, the Faculty, and all graduates of the University.  Alumni of UBC are always part of UBC.  When we fail to form a morally well-functioning community at UBC, we fail ourselves, our students, and our alumni. We fail to achieve the conditions under which we are all best able to fulfil the functions the people of British Columbia have invested in us.

[1] This is enshrined in law in BC.  See the BC University Act, Section 47.2.

[2] “Sexual behaviour policies” is a phrase that might make some nervous.  The point is not to limit the often robust sexual exploration that some in the academic community engage in, except to specify that this exploration must take place within the context of consent and in full knowledge of structural and individual power differences in the community.



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