Several months ago, a UBC student who had been sexually harassed told me that while university administrators publicly insist that we should openly confront and discuss such incidents, the real message they habitually, directly deliver to those who have been assaulted is, “Shh.” The student laughed and her eyes widened as she drew her index finger to her lips to repeat and illustrate the point: “Shh.”
My admiration for this student is immense, and I know that she will be okay – better than okay – but her sense of humour belied her ongoing ordeals: the act of harassment itself; the isolation arising from our collective refusal to publicly acknowledge this transgression; and the burdensome weight of endless meetings and interviews on her, and not on her assailant. These are some of the themes of The Hunting Ground, a recently released movie that explores the problem of sexual violence, and various non-efforts to assault it, on university campuses in the USA. My sense is that UBC has engaged in similar non-efforts for a long, long time. One story from my past illustrates this, I think. I share it not to get even, but to cast light on a problem.
About twenty years ago in the wake of a crisis in the Political Science Department that received international attention, I addressed one of my classes about professorial sexual harassment of students. Our discussion turned to what are allegedly consensual relations between professors and students. I told the students that this is a line that should never be crossed, as it invariably issues from power inequities and violates trust. Nonetheless, I said, in the recent past a female student had killed herself after an affair with a professor had gone woefully, tragically wrong.
How did I know this? A high-ranking university administrator with responsibilities in our counseling services had told me. There was no reason for this person to deceive me about the story or any of its details – one of which was that the professor involved was not a member of the Political Science Department.
Months later, I received a furious call from the dean of arts, who demanded that I appear that day in her office to answer charges of professional misconduct. I had no clue what I might have done. When I arrived in the dean’s office, she told me that she had learned that I had identified a specific professor as having been implicated in the suicide, and had told my students that the woman’s nude body, along with a journal that named names, had been found on Wreck Beach. In the Dean’s office were two other faculty members, men, also dismissive of my denial, who were known to have had a close relationship with at least one of their women students. The dean, for her part, had been a colleague of the professor who was involved with the deceased woman.
Needless to say, I felt as though I had fallen into the proverbial good old boys club. No one in the club, I knew, would want the story of the suicide to come out, as I had in fact told my students it should.
The dean told me that my job was at stake: in her view, I had “slandered” colleagues and moreover was “guilty of spreading rumors.” I quickly hired an attorney and private investigator, who interviewed my students. To the chagrin of the dean and other university administrators, the students told the truth: I had drawn no link between the deceased student and the Political Science Department and had not mentioned any details about her death. The cost of proving this? A cool ten grand.
But the real cost was larger. Though I thwarted the dean, and my own department head, and though there would be no official record of the incident, I was compelled to apologize – not surprising, given that UBC’s lawyer, in finest Stalinist form, had asked me to rat out the colleague who had told me of the suicide. I declined.
But I am not proud to say that, in the end, the combined efforts of UBC’s administrators largely worked: for many years, I shut up about this incident, lost my voice, and became a more timid teacher, sometimes manoeuvring as carefully in my classrooms as I had manoeuvred in newsrooms where I had been a reporter for the mainstream press. I spoke to students, from time to time, about male proprietorship and predatory violence and, often quoting the writer James Baldwin, about how an intimate relationship between unequals always is “perverse.” More recently, I have included a section on sexual harassment and assault in my undergraduate, and graduate, syllabi, and have pointed to the lingering effects of my encounter with the dean as an example of enforced, complicitous silence. That a tenured, male faculty member could be intimidated for speaking out, one wise student explained to me, only underscores the far greater difficulties facing women students who may be considering an attack on UBC’s culture of “shh-ing.”
The experiences of the student who identified the ubiquitous “shh-ing” virus, UBC’s well-documented under-reporting of sexual violence against women, and multiple instances of rape and harassment here and at many other North American universities plainly have demonstrated that the male predation and misogyny which shape our academic lives awaits full unsilencing. But the reputation of the university’s brand always is at stake – at Dalhousie, at Harvard, at Florida State, at Stanford – and often administrators and faculty worry more about their corporate careers than about their students.
So, the history of silence at UBC, too, is a long one.
It is time – past time – to engage in the unsilencing of all of this – and to change it. We all need to be immunized against “shh-ing.” What possible risks could an inoculation bring?
This question might well be directed, in the first instance, to the editors of The Ubyssey. They refused to publish this essay. How many others have engaged in acts of silencing? Why?
– Paul Krause, Associate Professor, UBC Department of History
Special thanks to many anonymous editors and readers, and the editorial collective of The Talon.