Inquires, again

This post is a continuation of my earlier post,  An Inquiry into Inquiries, and is generated by UBC’s recent release of the Butler report on the investigation into the mishandling of complaints of sexual assault. In the earlier piece, I expressed concern that the Butler inquiry would have little to offer the women who brought forth complaints of sexual assault by a student, and it is an unhappy fact that this gloomy prediction proved to be correct.

Ms Butler found no evidence of any wrongdoing by the University, and no breaches of any existing UBC policy. She found also that university staff involved all acted in good faith. A summary of her report may be found here; it makes a few findings of delay, human error, and lack of clarity in procedures, declares all university actors acted in good faith, and that’s about it. The report offers even less to those who might want to conduct an intelligent debate on the subject of the investigation: none of the evidence is available to those us who might want to make up our own minds on the subject. Indeed, the report offers so little of substance that it’s hard to even write about it.

The women whose lives were affected by the events in question receive scant attention from Ms Butler. They are offered a scant paragraph, which acknowledges that they felt silenced, but the report goes no further than that, and assigns no responsibility for any suffering that might have been inflicted. The origin of the investigation was the fact that six women made complaints of assault, and that they received little or no remedy from the university — while it may be reassuring for the community to hear that no policy was violated and that the university acted in good faith, it seems less than satisfactory from the perspective of victims of sexual assault, whose suffering presumably goes further than simply being “silenced,” and who might reasonably expect some kind of redress. I can find no public record of Ms Butler’s mandate, but it seems clear enough from reading the report that the effects of UBC processes on complainants was not a primary focus.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the complainants proposes to pursue the matter before the human rights tribunal. The marginalization of the complainants in Ms Butler’s report strongly suggests that an outside complaint is the only way to exert pressure on the university to take responsibility for events occurring under its aegis.

The report does not appear in isolation. It comes in a context where the university is experiencing a major public outcry around general questions of transparency and accountability, sparked by events around the resignation of the former President Dr Arvind Gupta, as well as the misappropriation of funds in the Faculty of Dentistry, a breach of academic freedom, and a decision to ignore a petition for disinvestment in fossil fuels which seems to place duty to donors above duty to the community.

In this context, the Butler report reads like yet another UBC media release (and there have been many) that declares no evidence of any problems, which absolves the University administration of any responsibility, and which sidelines the concerns of the persons whose lives were affected by the incidents in question. The common theme in all these matters is an institutional approach which seems to focus on the corporate aspects of the university’s administration more than it does the interests of the community, whether faculty, staff, or students.

The AMS Society and the UBC faculty have both independently called for an external review of the Board of Governors, and one is led therefore to ask what sort of review might actually have some teeth, and address the interests of the community rather than protect the image of the university. Would the Board (or the Government) agree to a review  which gives a third party access to Board deliberations and committee meeting minutes, which seems to be what is wanted? If it did, what sort of limits could the Board reasonably be expected to set? Who should conduct such a review, and what confidence do we have that any finding would be implemented? What are the elements that the community would require? And what recourse would there be if the Board and Government simply refuse?

I do not know the answer to these questions. But those of us — and I am one — who wish to see an inquiry into the Board and the Board Secretariat, might be well advised to move away from general calls for transparency to thinking in more specificity about what an inquiry might look like, about who might conduct it,  and how it might be generated.