These are troubling days indeed for students, faculty, and staff who care about preventing sexual violence and helping its survivors. Recent events such as the trial of Jian Ghomeshi — which can only be characterized as theatre of the grotesque — certainly remind us of the flaws of our justice system.
Other developments, however, seem more promising. This month, legislation passed ordering universities to develop a concrete sexual assault policy, a move to which U of T, and other Ontario universities are now responding. Many have lauded this decision, while others have questioned whether this draws a strange distinction between the way in which sexual assault is handled on campuses, as opposed to in the ‘real’ world.
This distinction is more visible in the United States, where Title IX culture directs university committees to look for a “preponderance of evidence” in sexual assault investigations, rather than requiring claimants to prove their allegations “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as required in a criminal trial.
In Canada -— lacking Title IX directives — universities have fewer guidleines when determining campus procedures that may diverge from law on the outside. We suggest that federal and provincial governments encourage universities to adopt a system of their own, because they understand how unlikely it is for survivors of assault to be treated fairly in the regular court systems.
Although some may consider this chauvinism, according to these directives, universities can actually protect students better than the cities in which they are situated. Devising and executing such a policy, however, requires imagination, will, and collective buy-in. It is also what U of T is tasked with doing, as suggested by the February Final Report of the Presidential and Provostial Committee on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence.
While the time it took for the committee to produce the report is an issue of its own, the lack of specificity concerning when the report will be turned into a set of concrete policies and practices is alarming. The term is near end, meaning the administration will have the summer to mull over the appropriate decisions to take — but also the opportunity to lull us into forgetting about the urgency of the situation. Lacking pressure from students and faculty, this report could become analogous to the work of so many blue ribbon committees: symbolic gestures of compliance with zero impact.
One concern of the final report is that it swims in a sea of moral ambiguity. Peppered throughout the document is the statement, “Sexual violence will not be tolerated on our campuses.” It is a conveniently vague phrase that, in reality, gives little indication of the consequences that those who commit sexual assault will face. Will perpetrators be suspended or expelled? Will faculty who harass students be penalized? At a certain point, the administration will have to define these consequences.
The report’s use of the word “resolution” is similarly a cause for concern. The Committee seems eager to produce resources that aid in the quick resolution of assault claims, but “resolution” suggests a mere misunderstanding, a conflict among equal parties. Treating sexual assault as the product of misunderstanding obscures the very violent reality of the issue. This is also the central error of the culture of the Sexual Harassment Office at U of T, which treats harassment as a misunderstanding among equals that needs to be mediated. Countless students have gone to that office seeking justice, and resolved to quietly manage their own grief because the system will not recognize its legitimacy.
For all the experts, consultations with diverse sets of stakeholders, variegated committees, and accounting structures, the committee’s report is void of courage. On the other hand, the province says universities can do it differently, while Title IX practices indicate some of the ways this is so. We can create new ways to address sexual assault with integrity, and protect survivors. We can be an example to the city in which we are nestled and to the courts, which are in walking distance. The question posed to the administration is: are you up for it?
Judith Taylor is a sociology and women and gender studies professor at U of T. Arielle Vetro is a third-year Trinity College student studying equity and women and gender studies.