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McGill University under fire for response to complaints against ‘predatory’ professors

McGill University is being criticized for its handling of sexual-misconduct complaints against faculty, including allegations of “predatory” behaviour by a handful of professors in five specific departments.

Student leaders released a letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier and other senior officials saying the university has inadequately addressed complaints about inappropriate sexual conduct by professors, putting students at risk.

“These professors continue to teach and to supervise, in some cases teaching mandatory first-year courses, leaving vulnerable the students who have not yet been warned about the predatory behaviours of certain professors,” says the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).

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The letter says complaints resurface “year after year” about professors in the departments of history, philosophy, political science, psychology and world Islamic and Middle East Studies.

The complaints involve five professors – one in each of the departments, according to Connor Spencer, vice-president of external affairs for the students’ society.

In an interview, Ms. Spencer said the professors’ conduct is an “open secret” among students: sleeping with undergraduates, making sexually suggestive comments in person and in e-mails, or holding office hours in bars for mandatory courses, sometimes with underage students.

Ms. Spencer says that when she became a McGill student five years ago, a group of women gave her a list of professors “whose classes I was not to take.” If she did take their courses, she was told never to go to their offices “if I wanted to keep myself safe.”

“Everyone knows the names of the professors and it’s shared among students,” she said. “We’ve spoken about specific cases with administrators in meetings and still nothing has been done, even though they know that these are reoccurring issues.”

McGill did not agree to a request to speak with Ms. Fortier or other officials about the allegations. Instead, it released a statement saying it takes sexual misconduct seriously.

“McGill University has put in place staff, resources, policies and opportunities for individuals and groups to come forward with their concerns and complaints,” said Louis Arseneault, vice-principal, communications and external relations.

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“Every report or complaint of sexual misconduct, abuse of authority through sexual misconduct or “predatory behaviour” that contains sufficiently detailed facts is investigated. If there are findings of sexual misconduct of any kind, appropriate measures are taken, following due process.”

The university says it is limited by Quebec privacy rules from releasing the results of investigations. “The fact that results are not disclosed is not evidence that investigations did not occur or that they were faulty.”

But students say the process for filing complaints is difficult and places an undue burden on the students. Some who have initiated grievances end up dropping them “because it’s so labour-intensive and retraumatizing,” Ms. Spencer said.

The student leaders are asking for a third-party investigate McGill’s management of the complaints.

While McGill has been working to implement a sexual-violence policy that was adopted by the university senate in 2016, Ms. Spencer says “little to no work has been done.”

The university appears to be piqued by Ms. Spencer’s public criticism. Hours after releasing her open letter, the 22-year-old student received a letter in return from the university’s provost.

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“As you know from your own work on the Sexual Violence Policy Implementation Committee and from McGill administrators’ ongoing, direct engagement with SSMU executives – yourself included – McGill has in place extensive resources, skilled staff, and robust policies to address matters of sexual violence and to support survivors,” Christopher Manfredi, provost and vice-principal (academic), wrote to Ms. Spencer.

The letter by the student society has received the support from more than 50 student groups at McGill. Ms. Spencer says she was spurred on by the ongoing discussion about inappropriate sexual conduct in Canada and around the world.

“I thought, ’If not now, then when,’ ” said Ms. Spencer, who is also vice-chair of Our Turn, a Canadawide organization aimed at preventing sexual violence on campuses. “If something doesn’t happen now, I don’t know when it’s going to happen.”

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