In the wake of two unconnected instances of alleged sexual misconduct against faculty members at the University of Toronto it has become prudent to re-examine the university’s current stance on the unique relationship between students and faculty, and its approach to these kinds of accusations.
Ten days ago, the Toronto Star reported that James Andrew Payne, an instructor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, has been accused of a second count of sexual assault against a young woman. Payne is currently on trial for another sexual assault charge, relating to events which allegedly took place in 2011. Disturbingly, the university first learned of the charges against Payne this August, after a concerned friend of the alleged victim came forward to ask why he was still teaching while under investigation.
Adding to the weight of this most recent scandal is the story of professor Benjamin Levin who was arrested in July on charges of making and possessing child pornography. Levin, an eminent education scholar — who was recently a member of Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s transition team — has been released on bail.
In handling these two controversies, the university is in the unenviable position of trying to balance several important principles. On one hand, the university must respect the rights of its employees and treat them as innocent until they are proven guilty. Yet on the other, the university has a responsibility to its students to guarantee that their educational experience will take place in a safe environment.
While the university employs many people and these events can be characterized as anomalies among a predominantly respectful group of people, they cannot be ignored. Nor should the university ignore that, in their relations with students, faculty occupy a position of trust and authority.
The university’s current policy on sexual harassment is narrow and outdated. This policy has not been updated since 1997, and is only useful if the alleged misconduct took place on campus or while the student was engaged in a university activity. This policy does not do enough to protect students in the modern university setting.
The inadequacy of this policy is evident from recent events. After the charges against Payne became public, the university announced that, by mutual agreement, he would no longer be teaching. Similarly, in the case of Levin, the university announced some time after the affair became public that Levin had “ceased all university activities.” The university’s approach to these cases shows that, in practice, it deems it inappropriate for faculty charged with serious, sexual misconduct to continue teaching. So the university’s policies should acknowledge that charges of this kind compromise a safe learning environment.
It is also unacceptable that the university first heard of the outstanding charges against Payne months after the charge was made. Again, the policy does not recognize that events outside the course of university business and beyond the boundaries of campus can still affect students and staff in their on-campus roles. While some may argue that there is little the university can do once a criminal investigation has begun, or that relations with the faculty union complicate these matters, they cannot deny that the university has tried to abdicate its responsibility to protect students, and has used piecemeal solutions when faced with public pressure.
In an effort to protect students, the university should take a clearer stance on these events and keep the community informed when they occur. The current policy demands absolute confidentiality in the publication of the identities of either the complainant or respondent should a complaint of harassment proceed to a formal hearing, unless there is a risk of serious bodily harm to others. This is manifestly the case in Payne’s situation; he was accused of committing sexual assault in a private residence off campus. Because the incident took place off campus however, there was no disclosure. A new, more comprehensive strategy should be considered given that this policy has failed to fulfill its mandate twice in such a short period of time.
Students are constantly reminded to be responsible and respectful in their interactions with their peers. Many programs and resources are available to students on how to avoid, prevent, report, and seek help with issues of sexual harassment and misconduct. Orientation leaders are required to complete anti-sexual assault training. Incoming students are asked to attend seminars on sexual assault. What training are faculty and staff required to complete? What information is available to the community about appropriate and inappropriate interactions between faculty and students? What reporting and monitoring measures are in place to ensure a safe environment? Policies and programs related to these questions should be re-examined in light of their recent failure. Greater transparency on these matters is also required, so that when misconduct occurs members of the university community know what do and what to expect. The ongoing conversation on respectful and responsible interactions on campus must be expanded to include staff and faculty.
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