Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual violence cases and attempted suicide.
Following the Governing Council’s December 15 approval of revisions to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response for Survivors (PEARS) Project has released a response demanding another official review of the policy.
The demand follows months of advocacy and sexual violence survivor support from the student-led grassroots advocacy group, which has openly expressed concerns about the recently approved set of revisions.
The latest review of the policy began in fall 2021, with the first five-month consultation phase opening in October of that year. In July 2022, reviewers submitted a report to the university’s senior administration containing 12 recommendations, which the administration publicly accepted.
There has been ongoing student advocacy alongside the university’s review process. In December 2021, the PEARS Project released its first policy analysis, and in January 2022, the group held several town halls to engage with students’ concerns regarding the policy.
In October 2022, PEARS also released a report on the review’s recommendations, titled “Too Little Too Late,” and organized a silent Simcoe Hall sit-in of the same name. Representatives from all three campus unions, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, were in attendance at the event.
The Governing Council vote on December 15 represented the final stage of the university’s policy review process, and came after the university presented the review to other governance bodies this fall.
Student advocacy at governance meetings
After Sandy Welsh — vice-provost, students — presented the policy review at the Governing Council meeting, several governors summarized other governing bodies’ discussions on the policy. The majority of these summaries acknowledged student concerns with the review.
For example, Professor Ernest Lam, a teaching staff governor, mentioned that at the Academic Board meeting on November 17, a representative from the UTSU had said students hadn’t been aware of the student feedback stage for the draft policy, and a UTMSU representative had called for a more survivor-centric approach. According to Lam, a PEARS Project representative likewise demanded survivor-centric solutions, expressing concerns that the review’s changes failed to address campus rape culture.
Vikram Chadalawada, an administrative staff governor, told other governors that at the University Affairs Board meeting on November 22, speakers from PEARS Project and the UTSU said that the policy did not sufficiently protect students. These speakers referred to a recent article by The Varsity about UTM Professor Robert Reisz, which revealed that Reisz had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy.
At the Governing Council meeting, student representatives from the UTMSU, the UTSU, the Association of Part-Time University Students, and the PEARS Project also addressed the governors about the policy.
Micah Kalisch, founder and director of the PEARS Project, spoke on behalf of the survivor-led student group. “For the past three years, I’ve had to look survivors in the eyes and tell them that they’re right and that I cannot guarantee the university will help them,” Kalisch told the Governing Council. Members of the PEARS Project, including Kalisch, regularly take disclosures from survivors of sexual violence at U of T.
“I have seen [non-disclosure agreements]; I’ve seen restraining orders, which have not been maintained or upheld by this university. I’ve seen students have to drop out of classes. I’ve seen students have to transfer. I’ve seen survivors and students try to take their lives,” Kalisch continued.
Cheryl Regehr — vice-president and provost — later told governors that the university does not use non-disclosure agreements in sexual violence cases, although it does request that those involved in sexual violence investigations “maintain confidentiality” while the investigation is underway.
During Kalisch’s speaking time, four of their colleagues joined them at the front of the room. They had placed red duct tape over their mouths to signify the bureaucratic red tape that survivors face.
Kalisch asked governors to vote against the policy and demand that the university commission a policy review from a gender-based violence analyst. Survivors, Kalisch emphasized, cannot wait another three years.
“I’m asking that you make a choice today to help keep us safe.”
Response from administration and governors
Upon an invitation to respond from the chair, Regehr thanked the students who spoke during the meeting for their advocacy. She told them that the university had been “listening very carefully” to concerns shared at governance meetings, adding, “We know we have to continue to do better. You are right about that.”
As an example of how U of T’s processes are changing, she pointed to the university’s commitment to implementing recommendations from the Association of American Universities. These recommendations are designed to prevent “passing the harasser,” or permitting perpetrators of sexual violence to gain employment at other institutions.
During the meeting, several governors raised questions about the adequacy of the revised policy.
Janet Cloud, a lieutenant governor in council member, asked why the policy had not undergone an external review, as the PEARS Project had requested. In response, Regehr said that the review followed the typical process at the university, which does not include external review.
Professor David Zingg, an elected Teaching Staff Governor, asked, “Can we get a really clear, crisp answer as to why we don’t just take the recommendations from the PEARS Project?” To that, Regehr said that the PEARS Project’s only recommendation regarding university policy had been integrated, and that the group’s other recommendations predominantly addressed “process.”
Professor Jan Mahrt-Smith, another teaching staff governor, expressed concerns about the university’s transparency surrounding sexual violence on campus, including the Reisz case: “There are people in this room right now who feel less safe going to my university because of what they don’t know.” He asked whether there were legal reasons that the university could not provide more information on the subject. Regehr said that the university is striving for more transparency, but employment law restricts what’s possible.
Part-Time Undergraduate Student Governor Susan Froom asked whether the Office of the Ombudsperson could provide a report on the policy before its next official review. Regehr said that the university would take this “good suggestion” into account.
After fielding questions from 11 governors, Janet Ecker, the Governing Council’s chair, told governors that they would need to come to a resolution on the policy revisions, and suggested that they put the motion on the table. “If we don’t have this [policy], we end up with the old one, which we don’t want,” she said.
U of T President Meric Gertler also offered governors his thoughts. “[It] sounds like, while we have done our level best in this case — and I’m frankly not sure how we could have been any more inclusive in the process — there’s still dissatisfaction and unhappiness with both the status quo and recommendations embedded in the proposed new policy,” he said.
He added that everyone in the room shared a goal to do better, and during the next review cycle, the university could “embrace” the idea of an external review. “My inclination would be to approve the policy as it has been proposed,” he said.
Ultimately, the Governing Council voted to approve the revised policy, which came into effect on January 1.
PEARS Project’s response
Immediately after the Governing Council vote, Kalisch told The Varsity that it was “devastating” to witness the Governing Council approve the policy. They expressed appreciation for Governing Council members who had “heard them,” but added, “For the large part — particularly on the side of the president, the chair, the vice provost, and their lawyers who they had present with them — we were not being heard.”
“The vote that just happened is going to actively put survivors’ lives in danger,” Kalisch told The Varsity.
Kalisch noted that, despite Regehr’s claim, the student advocacy group had in fact made multiple policy-specific recommendations, which had been reviewed by both a lawyer and a gender-based violence policy analyst.
Klark Janowski, the PEARS project arts and advocacy lead, expressed frustration that Ecker and Gertler had pushed to move forward with the proposed revisions to avoid going “back to the old [policy].” She told The Varsity that the PEARS Project’s goal was to only move forward with the policy once it was adequate.
According to Ontario Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, the university will be legally required to review the policy again in three years — a timeframe that multiple governors and speakers acknowledged during the meeting.
“What’s gonna happen in these next three years for me, for my friends, my classmates, anyone that is affected by this?” asked Nora Ahmadi in an interview with The Varsity. Ahmadi is the marketing coordinator for New Against Sexual Assault & Harassment, the New College branch of the PEARS Project.
On December 22, the PEARS Project released a half-hour video reflecting on the Governing Council decision. In the video, Kalisch said that, when Gertler had approached PEARS Project representatives after the Governing Council meeting, they had asked him how the PEARS Project could initiate the process of restarting the review. According to Kalisch, Gertler said that the PEARS Project could follow up in the new year.
In the video, Kalisch announced a demand that the policy undergo another review, one that is survivor-centric and trauma-informed. “We’re not waiting another three years,” Kalisch said.