The Professor Is In, a graduate student advice website, recently revealed 16 anonymous cases of sexual harassment at the University of Toronto, in which graduate students were targeted by their academic mentors. In the same survey, it was revealed that, allegedly, none of the perpetrators suffered any academic consequences, even in cases where the abuse had been reported.
Dependent on advisers to further their careers, students can be left powerless and unwilling to report abuse in fear of the repercussions to their academic reputations. While some of these relationships can develop into mentorships or friendships, the fact that one party is in a position of power is crucial to understanding why harassment occurs.
At the same time, the resources available for addressing sexual assault at the university are not sufficiently tailored to graduate students’ specific concerns. Some respondents to the survey reported being told that staying silent would be best for their careers in the long-term and that reporting a specific harasser might only work to tarnish their reputations rather than resulting in any reprimands for the abuser.
While the new Tri-Campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre offers some useful services, it also has limited operating hours that hinder its accessibility, especially for graduate students who may have heavy workloads and whose hectic schedules may not allow them to access these services.
A better option for graduate students, in that sense, would be the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), a body tasked specifically with representing graduate students’ interests. The UTGSU should ensure that students do not face undue harm to their academic careers as a result of the actions of their harassers, and should pursue provisions to prevent superiors from refusing or neglecting to support students who experience abuse.
According to The Professor Is In, one student reported increasingly violent verbal and written harassment from her supervisor after refusing his advances, to the point where she did not publish her thesis in order to avoid further contact. The student also did not receive a recommendation from her supervisor, and she cites what happened to her as one reason she was forced to prematurely end her academic career.
One way to meet graduate students’ needs might be to establish an internal body specifically tasked with providing support for graduate students in circumstances like these. Using the university’s new Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment for guidance may help the union establish a centre that makes up for a lack of specialized professional and peer-to-peer services on campus.
Systematically establishing safe spaces for graduate students is a necessary step the UTGSU must take to support students who have faced sexual harassment. Graduate students need the support of the UTGSU to address violence that originates from within the U of T community.
In a response to The Varsity’s request for comment, the UTGSU provided the following response: “It is not always clear for our Members who choose to pursue support services on campus how to navigate their situation because a majority of them are governed by both The University of Toronto policies and labour union policies. We encourage students to come forward and speak to one of our Executives and a full-time UTGSU staff person who offers confidential support and institutional resources. In addition, over the past few years, the UTGSU has participated in ongoing consultations in regards to the Sexual Violence Policy, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre as well as the training modules, which launched earlier this month.”
Supporting the well-being of students over maintaining the reputations of staff, partnered with a concentrated effort to establish a safe and supportive space for students to report and address sexual harassment, will immensely benefit women working in academia. In the long run, these changes will go toward establishing academia as a safe and inclusive space, dispelling any environmental or community-based stigmas that might prevent female academics from furthering their careers.
Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying History and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.
Editor’s Note (February 12): This article has been updated to clarify that it is the author’s opinion that the UTGSU should ensure that students do not face undue harm to their academic careers as a result of the actions of their harassers. The UTGSU is not necessarily able to do this, as a previous version of this article suggested.
This article has been updated to include the quote provided by the UTGSU to The Varsity prior to the article’s publication.
A previous version of this article stated that graduate students interact with professors more so than undergraduate students. This sentence has been removed given the difficulty in quantifying graduates’ interactions with professors versus undergraduates’ interactions with professors.