Dispersing the Cloud at UBC: Thoughts on UBC’s Sexual Assault Policy

UBC’s consultation period on the draft sexual assault policy concludes in a few days.  The results of that consultation will be important inputs into fulfilling the BC government’s mandate that all universities and colleges in BC have such a policy.  The end of the consultation period comes, as it happens, at a depressing time.  Nearly every revelation or innuendo in the current US Presidential election for the past month has reminded us of how sexually predatory powerful men can be.  Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Anthony Weiner form a cornucopia of sexual horridness.  More locally, UBC’s handling of the Steven Galloway case has been extensively reported upon in this weekend’s Globe and Mail; in the absence of the facts of the case, members of the UBC community can’t know how to read the allegations or the actions taken against him.

I am, of course, almost entirely ignorant of the facts in the Galloway case—how could I not be, when maintaining the community in a state of ignorance seems to be among the University’s goals?  Allegations made about the conduct of the investigation in the Globe and Mail article are, however, deeply troubling.  In the absence of a more official account, including the Boyd Report itself, the Globe article will be the circulating story.  I am myself particularly troubled by the allegation that some who understood themselves to have been called as witnesses in the investigation were then construed as complainants.  Everyone who speaks at an investigation needs to have a clear, consistent, and agreed-upon role.  (I am sad to say that I find this allegation plausible, given my experience in other types of investigations at UBC.  Many years ago, I was called as a witness at one such UBC investigation and when I arrived I was, in essence, told that I was to be presenting the case for the defense.  I declined.)

The expert panel on sexual assault, whose report was finally made public recently, has asked the sexual assault policy be placed in a larger context.  What follows are four recommendations regarding that larger context:

  1. Rather than a narrow sexual-assault policy, UBC should have a consensual or non-coercive sexual behaviour policy. This would solve two problems.  First, there are lingering concerns that, since sexual assault is a criminal matter, universities should not use administrative justice to make determinations about it.  Universities are not in fact doing that, but use of a different term can allay such concerns.  Second, sexual assault is at the extreme end of a variety of behaviours that UBC should find troubling.  We have every right to expect better behaviour than simple refraining from assaulting others.  The University of Ottawa pub crawl might not have involved assault (I don’t know) but it surely involved peer coercion and misogyny (as has the social media response).
  2. Policies and procedures must always align with core academic values. Among the most troubling aspects of drawing the curtain of confidentiality so tightly around so many recent cases at UBC is that it leaves the UBC academic community without any idea what the truth is.  This is troubling in the specific cases; for example, if we have no idea how Galloway “breach[ed] trust,” then how can we as professors and students know whether our behaviour is putting ourselves or others at risk?  But it is also troubling in general—because our community is organized around creating, communicating, and preserving knowledge.  To be told routinely by our administration that there are crucial things we are not allowed to know conflicts with our fundamental commitment to knowledge.  No one wishes to air dirty laundry, but if there is no way to discuss without embarrassment or liability why a President resigned or a professor was fired, something is terribly wrong.  We are practiced and, indeed, subtle in our handling of the truth.  Trust us.
  3. UBC must stand against nonconsensual sexual behaviour as a matter of the mutual respect we need to have for one another in order to be a community dedicated to knowledge production, communication, and preservation. Nonconsensual sexual behaviour expresses lack of respect for the humanity of another and it instills fear (dread, loathing, humiliation, etc.) in that other person.  These are not proper social conditions in which the academic community can fulfil its function. Of course, all communities should foster respect of all for all; my point is that our academic mission and values give us an additional reason to demand such respect.  No person who lives in fear or pain can function to the best of their ability in an academic community; no person who disrespects the autonomy of others is discharging their intellectual responsibilities to our community.
  4. We must have a firm empirical grip on our community and its history and design our policies and procedures in the light of such knowledge. North American universities have poor records of fostering respect for women or for members of sexual- or gender-identity minorities (among other groups).  Moreover, most of our students are young adults who are often experimenting sexually (and in other ways); such experimentation is not something we should try to discourage but something they need to understand requires consent and mutual respect.  Also, sexual assault policies should not ignore those aspects of campus culture such as party culture and sports culture that—not necessarily but all too often—work against mutual respect.  In other words, what UBC needs, while it formulates its policies and procedures, is an open and informed discussion that begins from and respects the knowledge we have about the interconnection of problems of sexual behaviour with other aspects of campus life and the history of universities, including our own.  Languishing UBC documents (such as this one regarding rape culture and colonialism and the University’s response) that bear the fruits of intersectional research should be prominent in these discussions.

A university goes from excellence to eminence by solving its problems in an exemplary way, offering a model that other universities will emulate.  Until UBC learns both to care for and rely on the intelligence and good will of its academic community, this goal will remain elusive.