Silence, fear and cover-ups: The three pillars of UBC

Something is rotten in the state of UBC. We’ve all read the stories about how the university has failed sexual assault survivors, problems with the Board of Governors, Steven Galloway’s firing, and Arvind Gupta’s premature departure. But the problems run much deeper making the institution toxic. This is something I found out all too well last year. I want to share my experience but have chosen to remain anonymous as speaking publicly could have an irrevocable impact on my professional and personal life.

I discovered that the policies in place at UBC are intended to protect the powerful while leaving students to fend for themselves. This is especially problematic for graduate students who work closely with their professors and count on them for support with theses and recommendations.

Last year I was enrolled in a year long class as part of my program and was initially delighted. But I began to notice a lot of problems and many students were unhappy. I’m not one to sit idly by so I took the initiative to try and address these issues with the professors. I was told that no one else was complaining and they weren’t seeing the same problems I was.

I had developed a strong personal relationship with one of my professors the previous year so I continued to reach out to them in hopes of finding a solution. I also confided in them about my struggles with chronic depression and anxiety, which were being triggered. But there was a reticence on their part to address even the smallest of issues. Many times I was promised meetings that never happened and whenever I questioned my professor about this they acted as if nothing was wrong or put the blame on me. I felt that this person who I trusted and thought would be supportive had turned against me because I was being critical of the department.

As the weeks passed the stress of the course took an even greater toll on me. While I had become skilled at managing my mental health this situation was too much for me to handle. I was having difficulty eating and sleeping, was consumed with anxiety about the course, and felt betrayed by my professors and classmates. I even strongly considered dropping out of school.

I ended up deciding to drop the course, which felt like a failure but seemed like the best way to take care of myself. I left or Christmas break and was looking forward to recuperating. But my troubles with the department and my professor were just beginning.

Because I had left he course after the drop date I therefore had to write a letter demonstrating extenuating circumstances so the course would not negatively affect my transcript. In my letter I detailed the problems with the course and my inability to have them addressed properly in as kindly and straightforward a manner as possible. But I was told by my Program Coordinator that Graduate Studies would not accept the letter because they did not want details and I should just say it was due to mental health concerns. After five months, I just wanted everything to be over so I conceded. But I couldn’t help but feel I was being thrown under the bus so Graduate Studies would overlook the department’s problems.

Some time passed and I began to feel better. I was enrolled in some great courses and threw myself into volunteer work that I loved. My professor also seemed to have returned to their cheery disposition and was interested in helping me. I chalked up their previous attitude to stress or misunderstanding. They even agreed to meet with me to help me prepare for a very important interview. I was nervous as it was the biggest interview I had ever done and a number of other students were also applying for the position.

But the morning that I was supposed to meet with my professor (the day before my interview), they didn’t show up. I tried calling and texting them and they eventually replied that they were out of town and had never promised to meet with me. I told them I was disappointed because they had met with the other students and they had fallen through on so many promises to me before. That’s when my professor told me that I had made the meeting up in my head due to my mental health problems.

This was the most hurtful part of the whole thing and something I could no longer excuse. My professor was using my mental health history against me rather than taking accountability for their own mistake. They had betrayed my trust, all while claiming to be an advocate for mental health. I now know that this is gaslighting, or a form of manipulation intended to make someone question their beliefs, perception, and even sanity.

When I began sharing my story with other students I learned that students stretching back years had problems with this professor, the course, and the department. But few people had spoken out because of a culture of fear in the department and this professor holds a prominent position in our field. When I tried to be critical I was mistreated, silenced, and made to feel that I was “crazy”.

After hearing more and more of these stories I decided to look into making a formal complaint. It wasn’t right that a professor could treat their students like this with no consequences. And policy is explicit about not discriminating based on mental health.

I spoke with a former professor who had helped a lot of graduate students at UBC. They said they had heard many cases of abusive thesis supervisors who would sometimes even go out of their way to sabotage student’s careers after they’d graduated. They walked me through how I would make a complaint and said they would support me, but warned me how difficult the process could be.

I also learned another student in my department had made a complaint, which ended simply after the department head denied it. When I found out that all it would take was a professor’s denial I decided not to pursue a complaint. I knew that it would cause me much more harm than it would do anyone good. I felt helpless, alone and defeated.

I can only imagine what sexual assault survivors and other students have had to go through at UBC. Silence, fear, and cover-ups are the three pillars of UBC. Instead of addressing the root of problems, the institution denies them until they become public, and then launch a PR apology. There is very little that students can do if they are being mistreated by a professor, especially if that professor has tenure. Even when students enter into the complicated complaints process it rarely ends up in their favour and leaves them open to retaliation.

In the case of Steven Galloway, he was removed from UBC after years of complaints against him. I wonder the impact on students that made complaints when nothing happened. And even now the Faculty Association and members of Canada’s literary community are behind Galloway, but who is behind the students that have been mistreated?

UBC is where we study, work, live, network and begin our careers. It needs to be a safe and supportive space for students to achieve their best and not be punished when they try to address the problems that prevent this. If UBC is supposed to be an institution of excellence this needs to include the excellent treatment and protection of the students it depends on to survive.