How McMaster’s response to sexual violence on campus is failing

By: Maddie Brockbank, Contributor

CW: sexual violence, racism

On June 18, CBC News released an article that stated that Scott Watter, a McMaster University associate professor for the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour was formally charged with sexual assault. Since then, three McMaster faculty and one graduate student from the same department have been suspended and banned from campus, pending an investigation into ongoing allegations of sexual misconduct and violations of the sexual violence policy. On Aug. 6, a letter penned by the dean of science was shared by a number of local reporters on Twitter. It indicated that these times are “without precedent at the university” and emphasized the importance of the current investigation into the “culture” of the PNB department.

NEW@McMasterU suspends a graduate student and bans them from campus as the sexual harassment and misbehaviour scandal in Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour finds more incidents. The university has an outside law firm investigating. #HamOnt #cdnpse

— Joey Coleman (@JoeyColeman) August 6, 2020

I have found myself wondering how exactly McMaster University’s administration can continue to name these experiences as “unprecedented.” A quick dive into a recent history paints a significantly different picture.

In January 2019, the former coach of McMaster’s wrestling team was charged with sexual assault. The assault occurred during his coaching tenure, although details had not been released about whether the survivor was a current student at McMaster.

In March 2019, the Silhouette published an article delving into the culture of sexual violence within the Maroons, a student-led group that seeks to connect incoming undergraduate students with the McMaster Students Union and boost school spirit. The survivors that the Silhouette interviewed described being assaulted by fellow Maroons and how the MSU’s investigative processes failed to support them, as they were pushed out of potential solutions.

In 2019 alone, the vice-president of the Equity and Inclusion Office indicated that there were 90 reports of sexual violence on campus. Of those, 60 turned into official complaints and merely five moved forward into a formal investigation. Furthermore, the Sil has previously published on students’ experiences of being failed by the system of reporting, investigating and adjudicating experiences of sexual assault. The article describes their experience of a system that causes survivors to go through an emotionally (re)traumatizing process that enforces a type of gag order on survivors (under the guise of confidentiality) and fails to deploy a rape shield protection (that protects survivors from having their sexual history and past behaviour called into question in an effort to discredit their claims during an investigation). Moreover, this process puts survivors in a long period of limbo and at the end, does not always inform survivors of any sanctions placed on the perpetrator in the event that they are found to be in violation of the policy.

The numbers listed above could also be inaccurate and fail to represent the pervasiveness of sexual violence on campus. In the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey, facilitated across Ontario postsecondary campuses in 2019, McMaster saw 63.7 per cent of respondents indicate that they had experienced sexual harassment on campus during their student tenure. Moreover, 75.7 per cent of McMaster respondents reported that they had witnessed sexual violence or an incident that had the potential to become sexual violence. Sexual violence continues to be one of the most underreported crimes in Canada, with merely five per cent of sexual assaults being reported to police and 83 per cent of survivors never disclosing their experience to a helping professional. It’s clear that the statistics we have available about this issue could only be the tip of the iceberg. 

In response to the suspensions of PNB faculty, McMaster’s president, David Farrar, similarly released his own statement on behalf of the university. The letter emphasized the investigation’s exploration of the “culture” of the PNB department and urged students impacted to reach out to the Sexual Violence and Response Office, the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area, the Student Wellness Centre and McMaster Security Services, among others. 

A few things stand out here. Firstly, the mention of SACHA seems to omit the reality that, in 2019, McMaster cut a $9000 contract with SACHA to train Welcome Week reps despite the fact that SACHA played an integral role in ensuring McMaster even had a sexual assault policy. Secondly, the exclusion of the Women and Gender Equity Network, who have carried peer support for survivors at McMaster for several years, fails to acknowledge their contributions to ensuring the campus is a safer place for survivors. Lastly, the mention of Security Services reads as quite inconsiderate in the wake of mounting student pressure for McMaster to terminate its contract with head of security, Glenn De Caire, for his stance on racial profiling practices, such as carding, and connections to Hamilton Police Services (where 70 per cent of sexual assault cases were improperly labelled as “unfounded” by HPS in 2019). 

It’s troubling when McMaster’s administration continues to emphasize that these times are “unprecedented” and that the solution is to merely examine the “culture” of a singular department. Sexual violence is, frankly, an issue impacting every facet of campus.

It’s troubling when McMaster’s administration continues to emphasize that these times are “unprecedented” and that the solution is to merely examine the “culture” of a singular department. Sexual violence is, frankly, an issue impacting every facet of campus.

The experiences discussed above — and my own — speak to this reality. In 2018, I booked a meeting with the then-director of athletics, Glen Grunwald, about how the Marauders could support sexual violence prevention efforts by attending my event on engaging men in anti-violence efforts. Grunwald never showed for the meeting. Another representative in the department promised me that athletics would support the event by getting student-athletes to attend. Former football coach, Greg Knox, promised the whole football team would attend. Countless emails to other coaches were left without replies and by the day of the event, zero representatives of McMaster Athletics showed up.

While McMaster Athletics is under its own investigation into student-athletes’ experiences of anti-Black racism, it feels pertinent to note that these instances are not isolated and are not “without precedent.” Issues of racism and sexual violence are interdependent; they rely on each other to function and are borne from the same system that enables marginalization of and violence against students to occur. In other words, racism enables violence to happen and it affects marginalized students disproportionately. When the system or personnel responsible for redressing instances of violence face allegations of racism themselves, it allows a cycle of violence to continue.

“We still have work to do” LOL. Y’all never started shit to begin with. Start by firing Mark Alfano. How about that? I’ve experienced a lot of systemic racism during my time at McMaster. Myself and other black student athletes brought it up to Mark & Glen and they brushed us off.

— Fabion (@FabionFoote) June 28, 2020

McMaster’s continued emphasis on siloing these issues and depicting them as “breaking news” means that they fail to acknowledge that these experiences are the lived reality of generations of students. Launching yet another (reactive and redundant) investigation into the “culture” of individual parts of campus life, again, discredits the countless narratives provided by students about their experiences of violence and marginalization. Why aren’t their stories enough proof? Why is McMaster responding in this way now, when this isn’t the first time these things have come up? What is the end goal of these investigations and will anything change?

Sexual violence in the PNB department, among many other issues affecting McMaster’s campus, is symptomatic of a much larger issue at the university and in the broader Hamilton community.

Sexual violence in the PNB department, among many other issues affecting McMaster’s campus, is symptomatic of a much larger issue at the university and in the broader Hamilton community. When one in four women will experience sexual violence during their time at a postsecondary institution, it is not unprecedented or isolated. When Hamilton reports the highest hate crime rate per capita in Canada, it is not unprecedented or isolated. When a number of current and former Black, Indigenous and racialized students and student-athletes disclose years of racism and abuse at the university, it is not unprecedented or isolated. 

When McMaster continues to treat these times as “without precedent” and reflective of singular facets of campus, it continues to fail students and invalidate their long-standing experiences of these issues.

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