University has a lot to learn about dealing with sexual assault
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/05/2016 (2566 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I was disappointed to have read the media accounts of the so-called “behavioural contract” imposed on an alleged victim of sexual assault by Brandon University’s administration a few weeks ago, and the administration’s attempt to deflect responsibility and play down the crisis by asserting that sexual assault is a problem across all university campuses.
While the problem may be pervasive, thankfully not all campuses impose gag orders on students, silencing them at the time of perhaps their greatest need, while threatening sanctions, including expulsion, if they disobey.
What BU’s administration does not point out is that colleges and universities across North America have been questioning the imposition of gag orders for years.
If BU had been paying attention, it would have been aware of this controversy, most recently at the University of Victoria, where a similar story broke just a couple of weeks before the BU incident hit the media.
At the same time, I am encouraged by the actions of several caring students and faculty who have brought comfort and counsel to victims and alleged victims of sexual misconduct who have felt silenced by a culture of concealment. However, when concerned faculty, according to one former student, are “the only form of recourse to protect students,” that suggests not simply an isolated “mistake,” as the university’s administration has portrayed the incident, but a larger, more contextual problem.
In the end, fewer mistakes would be made if a more inclusive, less authoritarian administrative culture were encouraged on campus.
Unfortunately, the university’s gag-order management style is not confined to issues of sexual misconduct. Having witnessed an administrative subculture where there have been suggestions that deans think and cast votes in senate in lockstep with BU’s central administration, as well as expressions of dissatisfaction, even anger, directed by the university’s central administration at effective dissent and constructive disagreement while riding roughshod over the university’s processes and policies, I am not optimistic about progress.
If history helps to inform our future, my fear is there will be little substantive progress around these issues at BU consistent with one student’s view that after five years, nothing appears to have changed when it comes to how the university responds to and is proactive about sexual assault on campus, and one alumna’s sense that the incident in question is not isolated, despite the administration’s assertions to the contrary.
A campus student group claims eight more BU victims have stepped forward, including an alumna who alleges she was a victim of sexual harassment by a faculty member, but was silenced by the administration.
One student described BU’s “culture of silence on victims and victim-blaming” and attempts at “keeping (the university’s) name clean.”
I would add to a culture of poorly informed paternalism that, according to one report, continues to insist “behavioural contracts are there to protect students,” then states “it will no longer ask alleged victims of sexual violence to sign” them.
Add to this the revelation by an alleged victim who was told by administration “that her incident was small compared to others” — despite assertions by BU’s central leadership that the incidents of sexual misconduct were rare on the BU campus.
This cacophony of contradictions and disconnects suggests an administration that is out of touch, scrambling to get its story straight.
It also raises the question whether it is behaving in its own narrow self-interest, rather than in the interest of the health and safety of its own students — its primary duty.
The attempt to deflect criticism and control the headlines by hiring a professional in the area of victim support only after news of the gag order went viral, while a step in the right direction, comes across as disingenuous — it’s something it should have done long ago.
The current administration has admitted it behaved inappropriately and expressed a willingness to be malleable as a way of assuaging concerns around a badly misapplied policy.
Going forward, this incident could be used as a catalyst for more holistic change at the university and not simply another attempt to cover its tracks.
However, having someone from BU’s central administration chair the committee that will ostensibly drive change around sexual misconduct on campus makes little sense, since the chair is a member of the same cloistered cabal responsible for issuing the gag order.
In order that the university’s administration can learn from others on campus who appear to be ahead of the curve on matters of sexual misconduct, it would seem a better idea to cede leadership on this to those at the university with a greater appreciation for the issues, with representatives from central administration participating, but listening much more carefully than they have in the past.
Simply dealing with BU’s current crisis with reactive, slapdash solutions won’t lead to institutional growth and more durable outcomes.
Andrew Egan is a former dean of science at Brandon University. He is currently a chancellor at a large state university in the U.S.