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Nothing to see here

“If Evered read past the headline, he’s seen that the article in no way says there are no resources available on campus. The article describes how students were supported in the beginning by counsellors and administrators, and how, with the initial support, their outlook was positive. It talks about how, in the end, that support ended up not being enough to prevent students from feeling like reporting was a mistake — for all that it did was leave them feeling powerless, turned against, and closed off from real and sustained help.”

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By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

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This wasn’t the plan. After The Cascade published a feature article last month on the experience of a student reporting sexual assault at UFV, I thought that a reasonable follow-up, depending on how the article was received, would be to go back, ask the people involved in the process, and possibly the president, about what the best way forward really looks like. It took four pages to explain the process — that’s a start — now maybe it would be possible to take a good, hard look at ways it could be improved moving forward. I forgot how predictable universities are when it comes to this.

Instead, before 24 hours had passed after the article’s publication, Mark Evered, UFV’s president, spoke to the Board of Governors (the highest decision-making body of the university, with members mostly appointed by the provincial government) during the in camera (private) session of a regular meeting. Following that, he prepared a few remarks, which he delivered in the public session that followed, and were expanded into an address emailed out to faculty, staff, administrators, and student employees the following morning. (It is reprinted on page five.)

“My great concern, and it’s been expressed to me by a number of others today, is an article titled ‘Nowhere to go’ implies that this university is not providing services to students who have been sexually assaulted, and of course that is just blatantly false,” he said at the meeting before the Board. “There are many mechanisms available.”

If Evered read past the headline, he’s seen that the article in no way says there are no resources available on campus. I mean, the article is about those resources, it is about the process of reporting and trying to get help. The article describes how students were supported in the beginning by counsellors and administrators, and how, with the initial support, their outlook was positive. It talks about how, in the end, that support ended up not being enough to prevent students from feeling like reporting was a mistake — for all that it did was leave them feeling powerless, turned against, and closed off from real and sustained help.

This is not difficult to understand, even from a skim of the article. And just as Evered focused on the headline, chose to read it literally when it clearly suggested something else, it would be wrong to read Evered’s full statement completely literally: it is notable more for its defensive stance than the claims it uses to justify the current state of affairs at UFV.

Any interaction between the UFV president and the Board of Governors is not one between individuals, but between people placed in positions: Evered was making a statement not to engage with the article, but to signal a position, to attempt to establish the status quo. That being said, Evered did not reject the article completely, he did not deny that, like at any other university in the country, sexual assault can happen, and universities are lagging behind in addressing what to do when it happens.

“We recognize that, as always, we can do better in what we do,” he said. “This is part of a national public conversation, a provincial conversation, and one taking place in our institution.”

What Evered left out is that, while at the end of his letter he calls for public guidance, ideas and recommendations, the conversation — the one that will actually lead to any change or decision — is one that ultimately takes place in private, among high-ranking administrators. Sure, they’ll receive your emails, but will they act on them unless they’re directed to by specific provincial legislation? Does the public really guide UFV in this matter?

My requests for any additional interviews with Evered, or Jody Gordon or Kyle Baillie, who directly handle student complaints, were denied. I was told by an administrator speaking on their behalf that, “They feel they have given enough time talking about this.” Again, while literally this explanation is a joke, its basis underpins a lot more than just this matter: the university wants to control its image, it did not appreciate being singled out for criticism, and it feels it does not owe a student newspaper anything more — any changes, should they come, will be communicated by UFV’s internal communications team, which is another way of saying that while recommendations are welcome, the university doesn’t want a real dialogue. It knows best.

The only other public appearance to comment on this topic came from Baillie, who appeared on a panel at an event organized by the Yes Means Yes club, which organized it to try and promote consent awareness on campus. In his presentation, Baillie made a number of comments that deserve further explanation. Since no one at UFV is, as of press time, going on the record to address them, I thought I would simply share my list of questions. The entire point of the feature article was to share the matter with the UFV community, to give a fuller picture of what is happening at UFV, and what can be done. By saying “that’s enough,” and promising, paternalistically, that everything is under control, UFV — an institution that already doesn’t have a lengthy record of students coming forward to talk on even ground with administrators — is giving the impression that it hopes the criticism fades, that administrators are allowed to make their decisions without outside criticism, and that the summer is one where people forget, returning in the fall with the standard university order of hope and trust.

Is the university interested in changing anything about how it responds to sexual assault complaints before potential provincial legislation?

That legislation, which would require new policy development with student consultation, is at least eight months away. The question is: what about the students who need help now, and in the fall semester? The main push at the panel surrounded awareness campaigns. Draw in students with a good slogan, easy-to-understand information, and well-produced videos, and people will gain the language to talk about consent — prevention, they said, is important. Adding it to the new student orientation is important. No one is going to say no to that.

But the process itself — will that go unaltered? Nowhere in Baillie’s talk did he explore this. And Evered’s message skirts around one of the biggest problems, according to students both at this university and others: the restriction placed on students to not talk about the incident with other university students, staff, or faculty after their complaint has been filed.

“We do not tell students who ask us to investigate a case of sexual harassment or assault that they cannot talk to family or friends outside the university,” Evered writes. Right, because documents instruct students not to talk to family and friends inside the university — as someone whose life revolves around this institution, it shouldn’t be hard for Evered to imagine how this imposed barrier could be a problem, how it could enhance the suspicion and mistrust of a student entering into a process they cannot yet fully understand, and alienate them from the people they know and the school they are attending.

Should universities be expected to investigate sexual assault complaints?

Baillie was frank about why so few complaints are substantiated.

“I’m not a police officer. I can’t compel evidence, I don’t have the ability to subpoena tapes, I don’t have the ability to require people to come in and be a witness,” he said. “Arguably, my hands are tied from the get-go. I don’t say that as an excuse, I say that as a reality.”

Given the flawed nature of this process, does it really make sense to promise students that the process they sign up for is fair? As Baillie noted, non-academic complaints are only one part of his job description — he can’t even promise to anyone that this is all he’s going to be working on, no matter how severe the allegation.

Other universities are asking this question as well. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, part of the problem — universities both having to support, then investigate students — is how universities are not built to rule on non-academic matters.

“Some college leaders are quietly talking about other alternatives,” writes Robin Wilson. “Could they pool their resources and create regional tribunals — staffed by legal experts — to handle rape allegations? Campuses could still fulfill their role of ensuring that students who come forward don’t have to be in classes or dorms with those they’ve accused. And the outside panels could process the cases more consistently, sidestep many of colleges’ built-in shortcomings, and coordinate with law-enforcement agencies.”

Like any idea yet to become reality, this may be far more difficult and prone to error in practice than it sounds now. But it would be good to know: is UFV asking this question? Or is it simply following the ideas of its own staff, waiting for solutions to arrive in their inbox or be brought up in a meeting? Because UFV is smaller and younger than other universities, looking at other institutions that have encountered problems on a more widespread scale is like looking into possible futures. But there is no indication UFV is paying attention to where it is going.

Is the university considering adding staff, or changing the organization of the office that handles complaints?

Right now, Baillie, who works as the director of Student Life, reports to Gordon, the vice-president in charge of student services, who oversees the majority of complaints. He doesn’t see how it’s possible, with the current set-up, to comprehensively address the number of complaints filed each year at UFV.

“I have other responsibilities that I have, and we know that even if there was one of me to do this full-time, we can’t do it alone,” he said at the panel. “This isn’t something that can be solved by one person in a room coming up with ways to deal with this. This is something that takes communities to solve.”

Until the community solves it though, it’s worth noting that Baillie, who listed his education background in his presentation (political science, then management for his master’s degree), is not someone who would have necessarily applied for that full-time position, if it existed. Should there be another office, one with a social work, psychology, or criminology expert counted amongst its staff? For anyone paying attention, it is evident that UFV finds a way to hire new administrators where it sees a need — in IT, in finance, in communications. Is this a priority? Does UFV have a plan for what an expanded office would look like, whether it comes tomorrow or in a year?

Part of the problem that prompts my previous question is that developing a comprehensive way to investigate complaints and hire staff usually ends up being expensive. But so long as UFV is doing the investigations, the question is “how” and “who.”

Evered indirectly addressed this question in his letter, suggesting that because UFV has female deans, vice-presidents, and a chancellor, students should feel comfortable talking to them. “There are many places for a student to go,” he writes.

Offloading emotional work to women who have a great deal of other responsibilities as part of their jobs is a very strange way of saying things are under control. They are, undoubtedly, ready to listen to any student they cross paths with, but to say that just because they are women they will be able to clear their schedules and help a student who will always end up redirected to another office to redocument their complaint is a reach — and just because they are women does not mean that students will be comfortable talking to them. I can’t imagine taking a personal story to an administrator I don’t otherwise know from studies or work, and it doesn’t sound like Evered has really imagined it either.

Why, if the entire system is “broken,” as you and others have said, are you looking to the U.S. model for ideas?

That was part of Baillie’s presentation — the processes are broken. This is something many administrators have acknowledged. But Baillie went on to share some ideas — which may not represent UFV’s ideas as an institution — that stuck out.

“I think [the Cleary Act] and [Title IX] would be two really great steps that I would like to see our governments either at the provincial or federal level to take,” he said, referring to two pieces of American legislation. “I would love to see us have a system of reporting requirement, and I would love us to have some manner of either charter-protected or human rights required civil rights legislation around sexualized and gender-based violence. I think that would make this discussion a little bit different, and it would definitely make my job a little bit easier.”

However, Title IX, while it has become a rallying point for activists at American universities, has become a great weight on universities — they hire administrators, undergo investigations, and there is no resolution in sight for the effects of this legislative requirement. Hundreds of universities in the U.S. are currently under investigation, with under 50 resolved as of the close of 2015. Title IX, for universities, is an example of bureaucratic crawl. The threat of government funding removed for universities who violate Title IX by not having effective processes in place to address sexual violence on campus does not seem to be a real one either, to date, as no case resolution so far has seen that outcome.

Baillie also recommended students watch The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual violence on campus. Again, this is a work with an American focus, and one that goes out of its way to paint university presidents as buffoons and administrators as callous cowards, with a musical score and statistics animations to drive the point home that reporting to universities is often a frustrating, fruitless task. I’m not sure what Baillie was suggesting with either of these ideas. They are the legislative and investigative outcomes of a broken system, rather than something that points to a solution — Baillie might appear to be in the know for showing that he knows about them, but what he draws from these examples beyond an undetailed recommendation is uncertain.

Will the university consider changing how it reports statistics to the public before potential legislation compels it to do so?

If Baillie supports the requirements of the Cleary Act, then it is not clear why he would wait for the province to create its own legislation before working towards better reporting on campuses. UFV has its own data, and it has a website, and other universities in the province share variations on this kind of data, so, for students who want to know more about the university they are enrolling in, it seems that making that information more easily available is a possibility.

Is the new webpage launched by the university the extent of its new ideas for the fall semester?

Baillie closed his presentation by showing off a brief tour of the new online reporting form for complaints, as well as the policy information that is now linked in the same centralized location. However, if the reporting process is still problematic, and all the online resource does is make it so students can report online instead of in person, with documents in menu on the side, is this all the university plans to do? Is this the final version of the page?

In my conversation with the administrator speaking on behalf of Evered, Gordon, and Baillie, I was told, without any prompting, that the webpage (which according to Baillie was the result of 10 months of work) was not rushed to publication in response to The Cascade’s article. (The webpage went live on Monday, three days after the article’s publication.) It does seem notable that the page, despite being new, does not show the new design that UFV’s IT department has been rolling out slowly across the rest of the website, notably seen in the new student registration pages. But it hardly matters — the article was not intended to be a shock piece to send administrators reeling into knee-jerk decisions, it was intended to start a thoughtful dialogue.

By deciding to refuse to comment outside of a defensive message and a conversational presentation, UFV is not showing a strong commitment to addressing the concerns of faculty, staff, and students that have followed the feature article’s publication.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently ran a series of articles from presidents, administrators, faculty members, and students on what progress will look like when it comes to sexual assault on campuses. There are nine broad suggestions in total, from better pre-university education about sex, consent, and relationships, to just following the standards and rules that already exist in a consistent way. Two student activists had this to say, though — something that isn’t much of a radical statement, just a low bar that universities refuse to pass because they care more about shrinking the perceived size of their problems.

“Never in our travels has a single college president given the response that students deserve: ‘We will not tolerate sexual assault on this campus,’” wrote Annie Clark and Andrea Pino. “Rape is a violent crime, and compliance with Title IX does not do enough to fix the problem. Blue lights, rape whistles, and task forces do not help the sexual-assault survivor who must see her perpetrator until she graduates — if she even does graduate.”

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