I have remained silent regarding the Steven Galloway Investigation at UBC because I not only know Steven but I also know a lot of the complainants—including the Main Complainant. I wanted to wait until the facts came out and the grievance had been heard and the Arbitrators had published their decision before voicing my opinion. But I cannot remain silent while evidence of UBC’s gross mishandling of the investigation continues to harm both Steven and complaints.
I am signing this letter now, after the UBC administration posted a job opening for Chair of the Creative Writing Department. I find this action to be heavy handed; it shows a complete and utter disregard for Steven’s grievance and the principle of procedural fairness. At the very least, UBC should refrain from posting this position until the grievance has been heard and decided. And by posting this position prematurely, UBC reminds us of their verdict, guilt, before the public—and the independent arbitrators—has had a chance to examine the facts.
It is obvious that in light of years of failing to address the needs of sexual assault survivors on their campus, the UBC administration is now taking a hardline approach toward sexual misconduct on their campus by suggesting policies that ban romantic relationships between students and professors and by firing Steven following an investigation by a former British Columbia Supreme Court judge, the Honourable Mary Ellen Boyd, who found that the only complaint against Steven that could be substantiated was a breach of trust.
In other words, Steven was cleared of the sexual assault accusation. Yet the force and weight of this unsubstantiated accusation has led to him being fired for it anyway.
I consider sexual assault and sexual violence to be horrendous crimes. And an accusation of sexual assault ought to be taken seriously. I know how prevalent sexual violence is, and I know about the research, which indicates that the vast majority of sexual violence survivors are highly credible. Of all major, violent crimes, incidents of false reports of sexual assault are the lowest, and, depending on the study, incidents of false claims only appear between 2% and 10% of the time.
Unfortunately for survivors of sexual violence, UBC has an appalling record when it comes to the way it has ignored and silenced sexual assault complainants in the past. And UBC needs to be held accountable for that track record. If they are not, then UBC may continue to fail its students by keeping its random, ad hoc, and inconsistent response to sexual assault complaints in place.
Those of us who have signed this letter calling for UBC to be held accountable for the way the university has denied Steven Galloway due process also need to support all the survivors of sexual violence on UBC’s campus whose complaints had been ignored—for years.
Real and substantive change is needed when it comes to the way in which the university handles sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. Fortunately, the provincial government has required all post-secondary institutions in British Columbia to implement a sexual assault policy by May 2017. While it may be easy to focus on and (in some instances) vilify a high-profile author and professor who has been accused of sexual assault, the processes that needs to be scrutinized (and if done correctly, supported) are the university’s efforts to implement a sexual assault policy. How that policy translates to action on campuses in the near future also needs to be examined critically. And if UBC continues its legacy of failing to meet the needs of survivors of sexual violence, it needs to be held accountable for that too.
As I mentioned earlier, the harm that is being done to Steven and the harm that has been done to the victims of sexual violence at UBC arise from the university’s inconsistent and unpredictable approach to sexual assault complaints. From its onset, UBC has mismanaged the Steven Galloway investigation. They made it public by announcing his suspension with the libelously vague “serious allegation” just over a year ago—at a time when the UBC community was aware that a Ph.D student in the History Department, Dimitry Mordvinov, had assaulted and harassed women on the Vancouver campus for over a year-and-a-half. In a meeting about Steven, UBC informed students and other faculty members in the Creative Writing department that counselling services would be made available and that the university would support the safety and wellbeing of their community. Although the impulse for this meeting may be well-intention, this heightened focus on concern for staff and students without any information about the nature of the allegations, made it far too easy for someone to imagine the worst. And many people did just that. People on social media and on UBC bulletin boards incorrectly assumed that UBC had finally caught a serial, sexual predator. But instead of addressing this misunderstanding, UBC retreated behind a wall of non-disclosure agreements, privacy laws, and administrative procedures.
In this vacuum of information, rumour, innuendo and speculation has replaced facts and analysis. As a result, Steven has been subjected to an unprecedented level of vitriol and hate. UBC has had a direct hand in creating this situation. UBC has the ability to clear up this misperception. But UBC has, instead, engaged in a misleading communications strategy. And on social media, it is guilt by accusation. Now, a presumption of guilt hangs over the accused.
One problem with the Galloway investigation, is that UBC has made it into a high-profile, public matter, but the administrative law processes that govern the investigation and grievance are private. No-one—Steven, the complainants, or any survivor of sexual trauma—is being properly served by a public case being handled via private, behind-closed-doors administrative procedures. And there is something fundamentally unjust about that.
Perhaps, as the UBC Faculty Association asserts, the Galloway investigation ought not to have become public in the first place. Now that it is a public mater, however, we can see how UBC’s handling of Steven’s case has failed all involved. Many of the complainants in this case have spoken at length to the media, and some of their concerns bear repeating; they were promised confidentiality when filing their initial complaints only to have it revoked once a retired judge, the Honourable Mary Ellen Boyd, was hired as an independent investigator. At the earliest stage of the investigation, faculty in UBC’s Creative Writing department engaged some of the complainants to gather evidence, which is not only odd but somewhat inappropriate. And the meeting at a faculty member’s house that included some complainants suggests that no one knew how to proceed—let alone proceed in a fair, impartial, and unbiased manner.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Galloway case, and I am not confident that the university will develop a sexual assault policy that will avoid many of the aforementioned mistakes. Instead, we are seeing heavy-handed public relations tactics play out in the media. But current and future students at UBC do not need press releases and slanderous, whisper campaigns. They need clear and transparent processes for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct complaints to come forward. They need predictable avenues to bring complaints forward. They need to feel safe to make their complaints. They also need to know that their complaints will be taken seriously and investigated quickly.
UBC deserves some credit for hiring an independent investigator, Ms. Boyd. She, however, examined the sexual assault claim and found that it could not be substantiated. If that accusation had been substantiated, UBC would have used it as a justifiable ground to fire Steven. And had it had been substantiated, no one would have signed—let alone written—an open letter that questions the way UBC has handled Steven’s case.
And just to be clear, Steven Galloway was not fired for sexually assaulting a student.
Steven was, instead, fired for a breach of trust, which arose during a two-year, romantic relationship with a graduate student. As I demonstrated earlier in an article for The Walrus, this breach of trust is not between the professor and the student; it is between the professor and the university. The university trusts the professor to remain impartial when evaluating student work so that the sanctity of the teaching and supervisory roles can be maintained. And the university trusts the professor to act in its best interests to maintain its reputation as an institution of higher learning. By engaging in an affair with a student, Steven could be perceived to be acting in his own best interest, and the mere perception of that conflict of interest breaches the trust the university places in him.
Aside from the moral and ethical concerns when it comes to romantic relationships between professors and their students, the power imbalance between unequal parties can make it difficult for a student to meaningfully consent. The law places an onus on the professor to continually seek and ensure that there is consent. Yet the law also views campuses as places where adults meet, form life-long friendships, and sometimes have relationships. Most universities now have policies to address the conflict of interest that arises when professors begin consensual, romantic or sexual relationships with students. And Steven ought to have followed this policy, reported the conflict of interest to a Dean or the Head of his Department, and ended any supervisory role he had with the Main Complainant.
There is no doubt that Steven’s relationship with the Main Complainant was unethical. And there is no question that he has done wrong. The question we need to ask now is this one: What is the appropriate punishment?
Other decisions in similar arbitrations hold that that firing a professor for a breach of trust is an excessive form of punishment. The legal principle here is that a breach of trust is subject to progressive discipline. In other words, Steven ought to be reprimanded for it and suspended without pay. But he ought not to be fired for it the first time it happens. Once he had been given notice, any subsequent breach of trust would, of course, be grounds for immediate dismissal.
But UBC is not following the law. UBC is, instead, engaging in a communication strategy that continues to cast suspicion on Steven. Not only was he fired unjustly, but the termination has also been done in bad faith. Despite being an extensive, five-month long investigation, it is obvious that these vicious albeit unsubstantiated rumours cast such a taint on Steven that doing anything but fire him (without severance) would somehow damage the reputation of the university.
The university needs to take a good, hard look at the way in which the Galloway investigation has been conducted. Furthermore, UBC needs to be held accountable for the manner in which it has failed to meet the needs of the women who waited for years before the university acted on their complaints about a Ph.D. student in the History Department who had assaulted numerous classmates. In fact, the way in which UBC has mismanaged all sexual assault complaints over the past decade or more needs to be investigated. But UBC cannot be trusted to be fair and impartial in these matters. We need more than an inquiry into the Galloway investigation. We need an inquiry into the systemic failure of UBC to address the needs of all sexual trauma survivors on its campuses.
The institution, UBC, needs to be held accountable. And I am signing this letter because Steven Galloway, sexual assault complainants, and all sexual trauma survivors on UBC campuses deserve to be treated better.
David Mount is an award-winning playwright. His fiction and non-fiction has been published in Dandelion, Emerge, Esoteric, Event, Post-Colonial Text, Qwerty, Ripe Magazine, The Walrus, and Vancouver Magazine. He has an MFA (Creative Writing) from UBC and holds a JD (Law) from UVic.