Some Notes on the Third-Party Climate Review Q&A with (Present and Former) Students of Concordia Creative Writing

A handful of members of C.A.S.E invited some alumni and I to join an information session today (Friday the 8th of March, 2019) at 10 AM in the Creative Writing Department. Four members of Concordia’s staff and faculty (including English Department Chair Manish Sharma, and Jennifer Drummond from the Sexual Assault Resource Centre) conducted the meeting to answer questions from current students about the contents of the Climate Review of the Department of English (URL also included below) created by Pierrette Rayle, retired Quebec Court of Appeal judge as well as SPB Organizational Psychology (SPB), a firm specialized in conducting climate reviews.

One of the meeting’s stated goal was to answer questions and receive student feedback on the review in the spirit of transparency, accountability, and repairing the broken trust between the students and the faculty and staff. Certainly many questions were asked and feedback given, but the most common answer given to student concerns was “We don’t have an answer to that, we can look into it.” At many times, the issue was raised that the students would like to have more direct contact with the Honourable Rayle and the SPB to ask for clarifications on the language used in the report, and the answer from faculty was: “We can look into it.” At the moment, all feedback from the third party reviewers is being filtered through Concordia and the faculty, in a very “top down” manner, and concerns were raised about the inherent issue of that fact.

In my own opinion, here are a few examples of language in the report I found unclear — and as one student mentioned, the lack of operational definitions in the report left a window for ambiguity and confusion — the use of language such as “real or perceived acts of sexual violence,” a “perception of favouritism” (rather than just stating that favouritism occurred), “real or perceived conflict of interest,” “sensitivity training on newly emerging cultural issues” (What does this mean? How are these newly emerging? There have been women, queer people, trans people, disabled students, and Black, Indigenous, and students of Colour at Concordia University for decades.)

While the faculty and staff were prepared to speak a little bit more about how the training in preparation for Bill 151 is going to be implemented in fall of 2019 through the use of yearly online training for professors, staff and students prepared by the Sexual Assault Resource Centre, there are still some concerns that were not answered. How will the online training be completed? Will there be a way to game the training without actually agreeing or understanding what is being discussed? What kind of compliance systems will be put in place to make sure students, professors and staff respect, absorb, and complete the online training? (There was mention that it might be tied to yearly evaluations for professors and staff, and to the ability to register for classes for students, but as far as I gathered it’s not confirmed yet.)

There was also much talk about the creation of Working Groups for Diversity and a Standing Committee on Sexual Violence that would be composed of staff, faculty and students. There were some really important questions raised about student participation — which students could participate? As one student reminded the room, if there is a process where no student participation would lead to automatic failure, then the students’ labour needs to be properly acknowledged as labour and adequately compensated beyond a mention on a curricular transcript. There are also other issues to consider, such as whether a student needs to be full-time, have a certain GPA, and a certain amount of free time to be accepted to participate every week on committees or working groups for equity or on sexual violence. These conditions could severely restrict which members of the student body can participate in these processes. In other words, many isolated and marginalized students that the university must be accountable towards will likely find themselves excluded from these processes.

There were also many points raised about how this top-down process places a tremendous burden on students after the fact, rather than involving them throughout the process. As pointed out by the student director of C.A.S.E., the admin has barely reached out to the student body to inform them on actual actions taken and speak beyond hypotheticals throughout the past year, and now they are reaching out and talking about implementing these nebulous committees and working groups to carry this work forward. “This is how community works,” was how one professor responded to these concerns. I found that sentence unpersuasive, circling it many times in my notebook.

When it came to reporting misbehaviour, one of the professors present acknowledged that he hoped students would feel safe enough to come to him to make reports. When it was pointed out that some students would not always feel safe reporting to a faculty member of the English Department, there was mention that they assign an ombudsman who was a member of staff but not directly embedded within the Department of English who would also be appointed to take student complaints. At one point, it was put forward that a university staff member position would be created to follow up on complaints and be available as a resource to students to help them throughout the reporting process. When I asked if this staff member would be a member of the Office for Rights and Responsibilities, I was told this role would be separate. When I asked whether it was possible to have this role be given to a third party outside the university, I was told it would not be possible because an outside party would not know the inside structure and how things work at Concordia.

There was also the question of what steps the faculty and university would take to protect students from retaliation. One faculty member did say that there are already university regulation that protects students against retaliation, but I pointed out that in practice and as shown by this third-party climate review, the university has a culture of disregarding the wellbeing of its students to protect itself. What concrete steps and processes would the Faculty of English and Creative Writing put in place to protect the anonymity of students who reported and guard them against retaliation? There was no answer to this question beyond that this was a good start of the discussion.

Towards the end of the meeting, the president of C.A.S.E. asked about the possibility of a public apology from Concordia and the Creative Writing Faculty. It was mentioned that there have been private apologies made, but no acknowledgement that the university and faculty have endangered students. Another alum in attendance raised the question of reparations and reconciliation towards the alumni who have been particularly affected, traumatized, and put in financial distress by everything that’s happened with the university. One faculty member said: “Every effort to reparations must be made on our part, and some reparation and reconciliation is called for.”

Happy International Women’s Day.  

The full link to the Climate Review of the Department of English: (Archived here.)

Update March 10, 2019: C.A.S.E. Concordia have released a copy of their notes/transcript from the meeting, which covers the meeting in great detail. Check out the PDF here.

Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche

By day I am a writing coach & freelance English-French translator. By night (or rather by dawn because I'm an early bird) I scribble away at poetry, prose, and essays in one of my many notebooks.
MTL // Tiohtià:ke