STU’s harassment policy under fire at professor union panel

At a panel discussion about sexual misconduct in the academic workplace, students and faculty members suggested the current policy on harassment and discrimination is failing to protect students.

St. Thomas University criminology professor Karla O’Regan was one of the panelists at the discussion on Sept. 16 in the Ted Daigle Auditorium.

“We have a lot of competing interests and they don’t always translate into safety for our most disenfranchised,” said O’Regan.

The panel was held while STU revises their harassment and discrimination policy. The policy covers discrimination and harassment between students, faculty, staff and administration, including sexual harassment.

STU’s policy on sexual violence and policy on non-academic misconduct covers matters between students.

The other four panelists included President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers Brenda Austin-Smith, STU psychology professor Suzanne Prior, STU philosophy professor Jim Gilbert-Walsh and associate director of Sexual Violence New Brunswick Jenn Gorham, who works to helps those affected by sexual violence, Jenn Gorham. 

Robin Vose, STU history professor and president of Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas moderated the debate.

The conversation mostly discussed student safety, issues of confidentiality, resources on campus and how to make campus a safer place.

20 students and some members of the administration showed up to listen and participate in the discussion that was originally organized primarily for FAUST members.

The policy

In the process of being revised, the harassment and discrimination policy is forecasted to be sent to approval from the STU board of governors later this year or early next year, said STU’s vice-president communications Jeffrey Carleton.

He said policy was being revised because the complaint officer model needed to be reconsidered and the university wanted to explore better ways to handle informal resolutions of complaints. They also wanted to add more details to the process of the formal investigation outlined in the policy.

In addition, New Brunswick’s Occupational Health and Safety Act addressing workplace violence and harassment had been updated so STU’s policy needed to be updated accordingly.

Carleton said faculty, staff and student representatives are on the committee that is drafting the new policy and the draft policy is also being reviewed by legal counsel.

The most recent edition of the policy, revised in November 2018, covers discrimination, discriminatory harassment, personal or psychological harassment and sexual harassment. Each is provided with a definition.

The definition of sexual harassment states, “sexual harassment refers to all types of unwanted sexual attention, including comments, conduct or gestures of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation, or intimidation or that might reasonably be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or academic status.”

The policy said the university has implemented a Harassment and Discrimination Education Committee, complaint officers and the Human Resources Department to make campus a safer place.

The policy states STU’s president shall appoint at minimum two complaint officers, one representing the faculty and one representing the staff or administration employee group.

The officers deal with complaints between STU employees and students or between employees. They don’t hear complaints of issues between students. The policy states staff, students or faculty should approach a complaints officer if they have a complaint concerning harassment or discrimination. They can also approach them if they need help determining if something or someone has violated the policy.

Panelists Prior and Gibert-Walsh are also harassment complaints officers at STU and O’Regan was a former harassment complaints officer.

A student, faculty or staff member who has submitted a complaint, or a complainant, can choose one or all of three methods: an informal resolution facilitated by a complaints officer, mediation or formal complaint procedures.

The respondent is the person who the complaint is against.

An informal resolution can be an “information meeting” between both complainant and respondent facilitated by the complaints officer. This could be in the form of a letter, a discussion or a variety of other methods.

Another way to resolve the complaints is mediation, where a “professional” neutral mediator helps the complainant and the respondent reach a solution.

A formal investigation occurs when a formal request is written by the complainant to the complaints officer. The complaints officer or an external investigator conducts an investigation. In the end, the investigator will provide a statement about the complaint’s background, the allegation, the respondent’s response, the investigation process, witness reports, other relevant documents and their opinion on the allegations.

If a complaint goes toward mediation or a formal investigation, the identity of the complainant and the details of the complaint must be released to the Human Resources Department, the respondent, and others involved in the procedures. In cases involving students, Student Services will also be notified of this information.

After the complaint is received, the policy states the respondent cannot retaliate either, such as giving lower grades or name-calling.

The issue of confidentiality and disclosures

Austin-Smith said she believes the formal investigation process should remain confidential to observe procedural fairness.

“But at the end of an investigation, there are a range of opinions,” she said.

Austin-Smith said there are people you meet in communities who have been “found in violation of things” all the time and she worried if we start identifying the guilty people in the community, the violators might never be readmitted into society again.

“If we believe in a rehabilitative process then at some point, when does the need to know [the offence] becomes an extension of punishment?”

She said her feelings were not consistent on this point.

In addition, she said she’s seen instances at some universities where those involved in the investigation can be disciplined for sharing the results of an investigation. It doesn’t matter if they are guilty or not guilty. At some universities, there are also non-disclosure agreements surrounding people who have violated harassment policies and then move onto jobs elsewhere. If anybody involved in the process shares information about the investigation, they could be disciplined.

Vose made a comparison.

“It’s what the Catholic Church did for centuries.”

O’Regan said she was torn. She said revealing the respondent’s identity would harm reintegration efforts, but deterrence held some appeal.

“The criminologist in me doesn’t want to suggest deterrence works, but it becomes a bit more real when I might engage in behaviours that aren’t just going to get me in trouble with a report that no one reads, but [are going to be read] outside of that space.”

But it’s not only the respondents’ right to anonymity that was questioned.

Fourth-year student Mackenzie Currie, who was present at the panel, was concerned about the respondent’s right to know the complainant’s name once it heads to a formal investigation.

“How are you protecting the faculty members and the students? Because they are targets,” said Currie.

Drawing the line

One member of the audience, who prefers to remain anonymous, wondered how long the administration would let a reoccurring phenomenon continue.

“When you enter a classroom that has a particular environment that feels malicious, that feels unfriendly, it changes the learning for everybody. It’s not just the people who have been assaulted, who have been harassed, hypothetically speaking.”

Fourth-year STU student Madigan Downs, an audience member at the panel, said they were worried sexual harassment and violence on campus between staff, faculty and students was happening at all.

Brainstorming

To mitigate the problem, Austin-Smith discussed creating a policy formed by professors, students and community against a range of unprofessional behaviours.

She also talked about a campus-wide educational program so every faculty and staff member can be a resource for those who have been harmed.

The most powerful body on campus

O’Regan said the onus fell on students, who she said are the most powerful political body on campus, to create a safer teaching environment. She said since STU is small enough and that it’s social justice-oriented enough, it’s possible to make change.

She said the best policies come from the bottom-up.

“You create some signs, you send out your social media, you talk to your STUSU … you book appointments with your administrative officials, you talk with your FAUST executive, you say ‘We care about this. What are you guys doing about this?’”

But STU grad of 2019, Thomas McDougall, wondered why there was any responsibility on the student to become advocates on campus.

“We’re studying English, not how to deal with harassment in a workplace.” 

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