As the University of Ottawa wrestles with its response to a week of sexually charged scandals, its leaders promised a new task force to help the school “face up” to issues of violence within the campus culture.
The university’s president, Allan Rock, announced a task force on respect and equality in his first public comments since his school revealed on Monday that police are investigating an alleged sexual assault involving some players from its men’s hockey team. At a Thursday news conference with Michaëlle Jean, the U of O’s chancellor and a former Governor-General, he pledged to “take fearless inventory of our practices and our assumptions.”
The university is still staggering from another revelation, days earlier, of a sexually graphic online chat that several student leaders had about a colleague. In response, many at the school have decried a “rape culture” they say is quietly pervasive on and off campus. Now, public attention is focusing on whether universities are willing and able to drive changes to social attitudes that minimize the real impact of sexual violence.
“These attitudes are definitely a threat to us all. We think the disease needs to be curbed, then cured,” Ms. Jean told reporters. “That’s why we need each other. It takes a collective approach.”
The alleged assault involving some U of O hockey players dates back to a trip the team took to Thunder Bay, Ont., to play two games against Lakehead University on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Police are still investigating a third-party accusation, with co-operation from the alleged victim, and the university has launched its own review.
University leaders learned of the alleged incident on Feb. 24, and want to know why they weren’t told sooner, Mr. Rock said. The men’s hockey program has been suspended indefinitely, a decision justified partly by “interviews done by the coach, after the alleged event,” he said, though he declined to reveal when coaches learned of the alleged incident.
Mr. Rock also rebutted criticism that he waited several days to speak publicly, saying “we’ve not been asleep at the switch.” The school was cautious not to interfere with the Thunder Bay Police Service investigation, he said, and police asked the university to delay its public announcement.
The task force will include faculty, staff, students and outside experts, with its leadership announced in the coming days. It will look at what kinds of extra “training and sensitization” the school could offer around sexual violence and harassment, draft clear guidelines for conduct, and decide on appropriate sanctions for future misbehaviour.
Last fall, the University of British Columbia and Saint Mary’s University struck their own task forces on preventing sexual violence amidst controversies over students caught chanting about non-consensual sex during orientation week. “In a way, they’ve started a conversation, and it’s a conversation that we now want to join,” Mr. Rock said.
Other schools say they are already working to combat sexualized violence. Ottawa’s Carleton University created public-service announcements for a sexual assault awareness campaign, and holds year-round events including guest speakers. Dalhousie University in Halifax takes presentations into classrooms and residences, and has plans for a white-ribbon campaign next month, led by men, to encourage speaking out against sexual violence.
Mr. Rock maintains the university was part of this movement even before the recent incidents, but he thinks it now has a platform to drive the conversation.
“I think people will judge us, more importantly, on how we deal with [the scandals],” he said. “Are we doing what a university of quality would do, faced with such shocking and appalling allegations?”