The University of Western Ontario has announced new measures to tackle sexual violence and address its campus culture after allegations of sexual assault and the death of a student shook the university this week.
President Alan Shepard said the university had let its students and their families down.
“What happened last week is really unacceptable,” Dr. Shepard said. “We clearly have a culture problem that we need to address.”
The announcement came on the eve of a planned walkout by students to protest against what they describe as a harmful atmosphere at the university’s campus in London, Ont.
The university has received four complaints of sexual assault since the start of orientation week last week. Police also continue to investigate separate allegations on social media last weekend that several young women were drugged and some sexually assaulted at a gathering at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence. Police and the university said earlier this week that they had received no information about these allegations. A first-year student, 18-year-old Gabriel Neil, died in hospital after being injured in an altercation near campus.
Dr. Shepard said it will take time to change Western’s culture. But he said the university needs to take action that will reduce binge drinking, prevent sexual assaults and de-emphasize the parties that loom large during the first weeks of term.
“We’re not here for a giant party. We’re here for fairly serious purposes – things that make our lives better and make Canada better,” Dr. Shepard said. “I want to focus on citizenship and the personal transformation that happens when you get a university education. Those are really important values for the university and they’re important for our society.”
Among the new measures announced by the university administration, students living in residence will be given mandatory, in-person training on sexual violence and consent, a program the university said it intends to eventually extend to all students. The training will begin as soon as next week.
Dr. Shepard said in his view the workshops focused on sexual consent are of paramount importance.
“We need to interrupt some of the narratives of masculinity in particular. We need to talk about how to keep each other safe,” he said.
The university said it will hire 100 safety ambassadors, upper-year students who will work in the university’s residences primarily overnight. It will also hire four additional special constables who have powers of arrest on university grounds, and increase nightly patrols.
Upper-year student orientation leaders, known as sophs, will again be allowed to enter university residences to provide guidance and support to first-year students, which they had been unable to do under protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, the university promised a task force on sexual violence and student safety that will be developed in consultation with students and will include administration and staff.
Western university faculty will develop the in-person training for the more than 5,000 students in Western’s 15 residences. It will include material on how bystanders can intervene to assist fellow students.
University Students’ Council president Zamir Fakirani said additional police on campus would not be enough to fix the safety issues. But he added that he’s hopeful the events of the past week will be a turning point.
“While mandating in-person sexual violence training for all students in residence is a great step forward, more can and must be done to address the systemic issue of sexual and gender-based violence on campus,” he said.
Vin Venkatesh, a fourth-year student in business, said the training should be sustained beyond first year, because students may tune out the message amid the excitement of arriving at university.
“It’s very easy for the people who need the training the most to just zone out,” Ms. Venkatesh said. “Sexual violence as a whole needs such a huge cultural shift that a couple days or a couple weeks of training isn’t going to suddenly change someone’s mind about how they treat other people, especially women.”
Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop announced regulatory changes on Thursday that would make it easier for students to report incidents of sexual violence, including rules that would prevent institutions from asking about a complainant’s sexual history. She said she was troubled by the news out of Western, had been watching developments closely and been in contact with university administrators.
Nigmendra Narain, president of the Western faculty association, said the culture problem is long standing.
“I’m hearing from colleagues that are saying that this is a decades-old problem,” Prof. Narain said. “There’s a problem with misogyny, there’s a problem with racism, we have to deal with gender-based violence.”
He said the faculty association is encouraging its members to join students in the walkout planned for noon on Friday. Dr. Shepard, too, said he is embracing the protest and hopes it will be a clarion call to end sexual violence and support victims.
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