Concordia taking sex allegations in creative writing department seriously
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, January 10, 2018 2:21PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 10, 2018 4:07PM EST
MONTREAL -- Concordia University is taking seriously all of the allegations of sexual misconduct involving members of its English department, including new claims following a blog post earlier this week, the school's president said Wednesday.
The initial allegations surfaced in a post by Mike Spry, a writer and former Concordia student, about the university's creative writing department.
Spry, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, alleges he witnessed and was made aware over the years of "innumerable instances of unwanted affection, groping, inappropriate remarks and propositions."
His allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour toward students is detailed in the post entitled, "No Names, Only Monsters."
Since the post appeared Monday, other people have made allegations, including award-winning Montreal author Heather O'Neill, who says she was harassed during her time at the university in the late 1990s.
Concordia president Alan Shepard issued a statement Wednesday and announced three measures: an investigation into the allegations; a meeting with students, faculty and staff in the English department's creative writing program; and the launch of a university-wide assessment "of our current environment."
"It is important to say again that all sexual misconduct is unacceptable, in direct violation of our values and policies, and will not be tolerated," Shepard said.
He told a news conference later in the day he would not comment on any specific department, faculty member or allegation due to the confidentiality of the investigative process.
He also declined to say whether any university staff or faculty members had been suspended as a result of the allegations.
O'Neill, meanwhile, said the allegations in Spry's blog post mirror the harassment she experienced with a professor at Concordia nearly two decades ago.
"I felt that I had to say something because I also endured sexual harassment while I was at Concordia," she said in an interview.
"Just to show that this is not something that you can pinpoint on a few professors -- it's endemic and systematic within Concordia's creative writing program and I do not believe there's a single professor there who doesn't know what's happening."
O'Neill, whose 2006 debut novel "Lullabies for Little Criminals" won several prestigious awards, said her initial instinct at the time was to dismiss her own experience during which she felt guilt and shame.
She said many emerging female writers feel terrified about coming forward because they are worried it will have an impact on their futures and careers.
That was the case for O'Neill herself.
"I didn't want to start my career by attacking these older, white men who had platforms and were very well connected," she said.
"As a young woman ... I would say I was vulnerable to these forms of abuse. I didn't even realize how wrong it was."
O'Neill said Concordia needs only to go online to find names and accusations.
"The onus is on them to do their investigation immediately," she said. "They don't need to start asking women to fill out obscure forms -- I'm not filling out one of those forms, I'm telling you exactly what happened."
On Wednesday, Shepard said he hadn't been aware of any allegations of misconduct or impropriety within the creative writing department.
"I've been reading that it's an open secret but it wasn't an open secret to me," he told the news conference.
"I do my best to pay attention to these kinds of rumours because they're important, and I wasn't aware. If I was aware I would have acted sooner."
O'Neill said Concordia should trigger an immediate revision of policy governing relationships between professors and students.
Quebec universities are in the midst of reviewing their sexual-violence policies following the tabling of a provincial bill that would require them to develop guidelines for intimate relationships between students and faculty.
The proposed legislation, if passed, would require schools to establish a policy by September 2019 to prevent and fight sexual violence.
Some have said Canadian institutions should follow in the footsteps of some American counterparts and ban those relationships.
"I think relationships between professors and students need to be prohibited," O'Neill said.
Concordia spokeswoman Mary-Jo Barr said the institution hopes to speak to Spry to help its probe and that it takes all of the allegations seriously.
With files from Morgan Lowrie