Content warning: in the context of university policy, this article contains mentions of sexual violence and sexual harassment.
In the 2020–2021 fiscal year, the University of Toronto earned $726 million, a 64.6 per cent rise in net income from $441 million in 2019–2020.
According to U of T, this surge in income will be used to increase funding for student residences, lab and classroom spaces, faculty hiring, and more. While these planned upgrades are sure to have discernible effects on the overall quality of student education, the university fails to include student safety in their promised improvements.
However, this insane surplus of profits, while a disgustingly unethical amount of money, comes at a rather convenient time, and consequently provides U of T with an opportunity to consider — or rather, prioritize — student safety. Instead of focusing primarily on academic aspects of student education, U of T should alternatively expend their excess of funds on thoroughly reviewing its support services for students who have experienced sexual violence.
Every three years, U of T is legally obligated by the Government of Ontario to review its Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, which originally came into effect in January 2017. Through these triennial reviews, the university finds ways to improve its pre-existing policies and strengthen support and services, while working collaboratively with students, staff, and faculty for input and feedback concerning these policy changes.
The most recent review was co-chaired by Professor Linda Johnston, dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, and Allison Burgess, director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office. After 54 consultations from the three U of T campuses, numerous response forms, and formal submissions from student groups, the review can be summarized by 12 recommendations.
In terms of the Student’s Guide to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, one of the most pressing flaws is the language used in the entire policy. Students who have experienced sexual violence are reduced to a “complainant.” This is incredibly misleading terminology since U of T specifically refutes the idea that they are a court of law, specifying that they can not carry out investigations or take legal action against perpetrators of sexual violence. This language is neither survivor-centric, nor trauma-informed. It’s aggressive and accusatory.
In its acceptance of the 12 recommendations, U of T outlines the steps it plans to take to make the Policy on Sexual Violence and Harassment, and the student guide, and the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre — that implements the policy to support students — more accessible to survivors on campus. However, U of T did not include having its resources reviewed by experts as one of their proposed changes.
I believe that U of T should therefore use its surplus of profits to conduct a more in-depth review of its policy with the help of experts such as trauma-informed lawyers and medical practitioners that could inform their policy changes. This would be significantly more productive than conducting an internal review.
Trauma lawyers could use their prior experience representing sexual assault survivors to make the wording of the policy less intimidating for survivors to navigate. Medical practitioners, such as doctors, as well as nurses and therapists, will have more firsthand experience treating survivors and could lend their expertise to the policy makers.
These experts will shape the policy to be more conducive to what survivors need — which is genuine care and support, devoid of conditions and contingencies.
Of course, reaching out to students themselves is imperative. Real people who sexual violence has directly affected, and then who are once again affected by the inadequacies and shortcomings of the university’s policy, are the ones U of T needs to listen to, first and foremost. Students pay tuition and students fill U of T’s pockets, so that money should be used with student safety in mind, and its usage informed by their wants and needs.
In order to prove to students that the university is putting their safety first, U of T must invest their surplus of income into their sexual violence policy, using advice from experts and students. This will not only build back trust between students and the institution, but also ensure that students feel safe and valued on campus.
Paden Neundorf is a fourth-year English and equity studies student at Woodsworth College.
Editor’s note (October 4, 2022): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the SVPSC created U of T’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Harassment, and was responsible for the policy’s review. In fact, the university was responsible for both the policy and the review, and the SVPSC simply plays a role in implementing the policy. The Varsity regrets this error.