On November 30, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) held a protest calling on the university to terminate UTM Professor Robert Reisz. Executives from the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project also spoke at the event. The protest occurred outside the William G. Davis Building at UTM, with around 40 students in attendance.

Ten days prior to the protest, The Varsity published an article detailing an external investigation that U of T commissioned, which found that Reisz had violated the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. In response, the PEARS Project released an open letter calling on U of T to terminate Reisz, commission a review of how the university implemented its policies, publicly condemn Reisz’s actions, and issue an official apology to survivors. As of December 4, the open letter has amassed over 1,700 signatures. 

The protest

UTMSU President Maëlis Barre started the protest with an announcement describing the logistics and support available to attendees through UTMSU’s peer support program. The UTMSU had also offered free shuttle bus tickets to anyone from UTSG who wanted to participate in the event.

Reagan Roopnarine, vice-president equity of the UTMSU, reiterated the demands that PEARS listed in its open letter.

“Robert Reisz is not an isolated issue,” said Roopnarine. “He is the product of institutional practices that tuck harassment under the rug. He is the product of policies that put the comfort of predators over the safety of survivors.” 

Micah Kalisch, founder and director of PEARS, also spoke at the protest. Kalisch said that they’ve talked to survivors who feel helpless and hopeless “because this university will not protect them, will not support them, and will not remove their abusers from campus.”

Klark Janowski, the arts and advocacy lead at PEARS, told protest attendees that she’d recently emailed U of T President Meric Gertler, telling him that the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) didn’t help her when she tried to seek support after experiencing sexual assault. Janowski read out the reply that she received from the president’s office to the crowd. “I’ve had horoscopes more sincere than that email,” she said. 

In the response she received from the president’s office, the executive assistant of the president wrote that Janowski’s email would be forwarded to the SVPSC. Janowski believes that, by forwarding an email about SVPSC’s negligence to the SVPSC, the president’s office violated the university’s sexual violence policy, which states that U of T will treat disclosures and reports in accordance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Following the speeches, protestors entered the building and marched upstairs to Reisz’s office, where they found that someone had removed Reisz’s name from the nameplate. The protestors gathered outside the closed door and taped up signs, including ones that read “We stand against racism” and “Silence = Compliance” written in red and black. They also put up red tape across the office door. 

Afterwards, organizers led the crowd in several chants on the building’s front steps before the protest dispersed.

The UTMSU organized a decompression space for the attendees following the protest, providing support and a safe space to connect with other individuals. The decompression space included drinks and snacks, as well as games, colouring pages, and music. 

Student reactions

Liam McFadden, a protest attendee and president of the horror club at UTM, told The Varsity that individuals like Reisz are “ruining academia for the next generation.” 

“Professors have a job to inspire and train the next generation, and [Reisz is] doing a major disservice to science itself,” McFadden said. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Kalisch said that the turnout at the protest demonstrates the “continued resiliency of our student body to keep each other safe and hold the university accountable.” 

Campus Safety officers present 

Campus Safety officers also attended the protest. Kalisch viewed their presence as an indication that U of T cares more about its property than the student body.

Barre also noted the presence of Campus Safety. In an email to The Varsity, Barre wrote that one officer introduced themself to the organizers before the protest started, but the UTMSU wasn’t aware other officers were present until after the protest ended. “Campus Safety was not wearing a uniform or any other visible identification,” wrote Barre. 

A UTM spokesperson explained that, “At the onset of this event, Campus Safety officers in plainclothes proactively identified themselves to the organizers to let them know they were present.”

According to Barre, some attendees told the organizers that they felt uncomfortable because of Campus Safety’s presence.

Next steps

Kalisch stressed that this protest was only a first step. “This isn’t something that’s going to blow over,” they told The Varsity. According to Kalisch, PEARS and student unions plan to continue pressuring U of T to fulfill the open letter demands.

Sarah Rana, vice president equity of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), told The Varsity that executives of the UTMSU, UTSU, and Scarborough Campus Students’ Union plan to attend future meetings with the university administration. She said that the student unions will pressure U of T to have another professor take over the two courses Reisz is scheduled to teach next semester. Both courses — BIO354 and BIO356 — are required for UTM’s paleontology major. 

“We don’t think that students should be put in an uncomfortable position just because they’d like [to take] a mandatory requirement [for] a degree,” said Rana.

The UTSU is also putting together an information access request for the investigation U of T conducted on Reisz, which the university has not disclosed to the public. The UTSU plans to ask the other student unions, as well as individual students, to do the same. 

With files from Jadine Ngan.