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Editorial: To combat sexual harassment at universities, we must accept that academia is the problem

The Andy Orchard scandal exemplifies the issue we’re up against
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment, assault, and rape culture.

Last month, Al Jazeera broke the news that Andy Orchard, former Trinity College provost and vice-chancellor, had been accused of sexual misconduct and of having sexual relationships with students throughout his career. Toronto Star confirmed that at least two complaints were made about Orchard to U of T, but the university took no disciplinary action against him. Instead, already vulnerable students were warned about Orchard’s apparently notorious reputation as a sexual predator. 

In the past few months alone, U of T has had to confront multiple sexual harassment scandals. Over the summer, the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association (FMUA) wrote two open letters in response to allegations of sexual harassment that had been shared on social media. They demanded a review of the situation and mandatory consent training for all faculty. In response, the dean acknowledged the “distressingly toxic” culture at the faculty and commissioned a review. 

It feels like every time U of T is forced to confront its own mishandling of reports of sexual harassment or assault, it stresses to students that it already has policies in place to handle all of their concerns. As expected, President Meric Gertler’s response to the Orchard reports prominently features the existing support programs at the university. “Before saying anything else,” wrote Gertler, “I want to encourage any member of the U of T community who has been affected by sexual harassment or violence to seek support from the University’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre.”

There’s inherent value, of course, in making sure students know what options U of T has when they’re in a crisis and to hear that their institution supports them — but the university’s basic response still leaves something to be desired. 

There’s a commonality between Orchard’s behavior and the Faculty of Music incidents: the perpetrators of sexual harassment are often people with institutional power over their victims. They’re professors, mentors, and advisors. They’re well-known researchers who carry a lot of power within their fields. 

In both cases, U of T’s reactive response fails because there’s a major problem it’s not taking into account, which isn’t isolated to any one specific incident. The problem is that the culture of academia is inaccessible and opaque, and it normalizes power imbalances that provide opportunities for sexual harassment. For example, a recent Statistics Canada survey found that harassment is much more common in academia than in other fields

This issue is also common within the classical music industry. The FMUA pointed out in one of their open letters that “Fear of reprisal from perpetrators who wield vast influence and have no financial barriers has only further added the burden to victims.” 

In both academia and classical music, a newcomer’s success is often dependent on their ability to impress people enough so that they’re valued and can get funding for their work. All of this makes academia prohibitively difficult to navigate without assistance from someone who has already gone through it. So how does anyone break into the industry? 

Well, there’s a system in place for that. Experienced academics — people who have already succeeded in their field — help out promising young students who are excelling in their research. The assistance they can offer is viewed as an integral part of the training that students need to advance in the academic ranks. In a lot of ways, academic advisorship seems intuitive — students will face a lot of problems they don’t know how to solve. Who is in a better place to give them a hand than someone who’s already dealt with the problems before?

But this creates a much bigger issue. Students, who are often young and in vulnerable positions, are made dependent on their older, much more well-established colleagues — some of whom they may have already heard of and respect deeply. In some cases, they may feel like careers they have dedicated their entire lives to are placed entirely in the hands of their mentors. 

Students who have faced harassment in academia have described a reluctance to report their experiences, for fear that their harassers would tank their careers. Students in former U of T professor David Gilmour’s creative writing classes reported to The Strand that he verbally harassed students during his lectures. Still, the students were hesitant to speak out against him for fear that he could harm their careers.

Near the beginning of her career, current U of T Vice-President and Principal Alex Gillespie was also harassed by Orchard, but as a junior faculty member, she didn’t feel comfortable speaking out.

There’s a vicious cycle of power imbalances in many university settings. It also especially disadvantages students and faculty who are already marginalized, because they are even less likely to find advocates or any meaningful support system from existing institutional power. 

If we want to do anything about this, we need to re-examine the way we do research, and start taking action to actually break down the mechanisms that put students in precarious positions that allow abuses of power to go unchecked. 

For one thing, U of T hasn’t actually banned teacher-student relationships. That should change — a formal ban would be public recognition by the university of the unbalanced power dynamics between students and professors, and would allow the university to take direct action against perpetrators of sexual harassment. 

Moreover, we should work on facilitating students’ transitions into academia in ways that don’t make them reliant on the goodwill of their seniors in the field. For example, the fact that reference letters are required for a lot of academic advancements perpetuates the unbalanced power dynamics and professors’ biases. Plus, there’s evidence to suggest that they aren’t even very useful. 

Of course, none of this is to say that students should stop trying to learn from their professors. Making connections and establishing professional friendships with senior researchers within their field of study can allow students to learn a lot and get excited about new research topics — but these interactions should never be tied to students’ chances for advancement. 

To avoid this situation, the university could match students up with non-research advisors from outside of students’ programs, instead of or in addition to their research supervisors. These programs would have to be different from the optional academic planning resources the university already offers: to properly replicate the benefits of academic advisorship, they would have to be set up as a program requirement. They would also have to include a lot more personalized time and assistance for individual students.

Any programs like these would not be immediately able to fulfill all of the same goals as a traditional advisorship program, since the supervisor would not be trained in the student’s field. U of T would have to design such programs very thoughtfully and carefully, with explicit oversight, and would have to make students’ rights an explicit focus. That being said, if implemented well, these new advisorship programs would still create more safety for students than the status quo. Since students wouldn’t be directly tying their career prospects to well-established professionals in their field, they would be put in much less tenuous positions.

Any of these solutions would be difficult and would require significant systemic overhaul. But if we want to effect real change, we need to be okay with that. We, both as institutions and as the individuals who benefit from them, need to be willing to change the system we operate in — even if it’s well established and even if we feel comfortable within it — when we know it is actively causing harm. 

When people tell U of T that they are being hurt by its basic structure, the university’s reaction shouldn’t be to tell them that it already has mechanisms in place to deal with the situation. Instead, U of T — and every other academic institution — should take a closer look at itself. It should be asking why the people who faced issues weren’t able to use, or didn’t feel comfortable using those systems — and what the institution could do to change that on a significant level.


If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment and don’t feel comfortable reporting to U of T, here are some external resources:

  • Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
  • Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
  • Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511