The Enduring Silence of UBC’s ‘Hunting Ground’

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.


9 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Sam Fenn

    I think that Krause and the Talon have done a service to the University for printing this article. That said, it’s not hard to guess why the Ubyssey didn’t. These are serious allegations that deserve to be followed up on and–of course–this article has its own silences. The admins and the prof in question have not been named. (Not that it’s impossible to figure out who they are). So therein lies the journalistic ethics question (which I’m sure tormented the Ubyssey folks): is it ethical to make serious (and difficult to verify) allegations against unnamed administrators and professors? That said, this letter can become a useful launching off point for seeking justice and undoing the culture of silence here and elsewhere. And to that extent, it needs to be published. Even if it couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been an easy decision.

  • Anon

    I was a PhD student at UBC and during that tie, the graduate advocacy co-ordinator. As such, I argued cases with the Dean’s office and various department heads (and occasionally faculty senate) on behalf of students. Some of these cases were sexual harassment cases, but they were the ones that there was no hope of ever winning. The culture of silence was clear and I completely agree with this article – the answer at UBC is ssshhh. Ten years later I am still traumatised by what I saw as advocacy coordinator and what I experienced as a PhD student where I was subjected to gross misconduct on the part of my supervisor (misconduct that in part was what prompted me to work in advocacy). I wish I could write such a compelling article about what I saw and experienced at UBC. This piece is exceptionally well written, and thank you for sharing. I don’t expect this to change outcomes, but perhaps it will encourage those who do the cover-up to think carefully about their complicity in this kind of behaviour.

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  • -50

    I just wanted to say that I appreciate the way Dr. Krause wrote this article. I really got the sense that he empathized with victims.

    Many men who write articles about women’s issues treat it as just that – women’s issues. They do understand that mistreating women is bad and genuinely believe women should be treated equally, but they often come across like they are reluctantly acknowledging some distant “social ill” that doesn’t really affect them on a deep emotional level.

    That was not at all the case here. I skipped the author’s name and read straight through the article, immediately assuming from the way this article was written that it was a woman speaking! It wasn’t until I read about the author being a male, tenured professor that I realized I was completely off the mark.

    It is extremely difficult to empathize with someone’s experiences when you’ve never truly lived them, and especially when you are in a more powerful social position than them, so it is very commendable when anybody manages it. Thank you so much, Dr. Krause.

  • twoonie

    Not to hijack the conversation, but what the heck. Why is it that it is generally considered a misuse of power for a professor to have consensual sex with his student, but, by many at UBC, it is considered perfectly cool for a man to misuse his economic power ( cash ) to have “sex” with a women who would otherwise not want to ? For the record, I think that both are a misuse of power.

  • Momma bear

    My ‘husband’ is a professor at a small maritime university. He spent the better part of a year grooming an undergraduate student for sex. He gave solutions in return for sex, he wrote essays in return for sex, he answered emails as her to other professors in return for sex, he even attempted to invigilate her exams in return for sex. Until I caught him. I found every communication – she even sent him her engineering code from her part time job for him to work on in return for sex. I reported his behaviour to the university and apparently. It’s acceptable! He’s an important prof! He has a good lab! Zero disciplinary measures. Zero accountability.
    Would you want him teaching your daughter? Would you want your daughter to attend a university that condones that behaviour? That funding is more important than propriety?

  • KootenayCoyote

    Compare the muzzling over the kidnapping, holding for days, & repeated rape of a student at Selkirk College in Castlegar at the turn of the 2000’s.

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  • Mary P

    UBC also does a poor job of protecting its female workers from harassment and intimidation through suggestions of violence. When reported through the union the reaction is “I know so and so, I can’t imagine him doing that”. An extension of the same policy.

    • Momma bear

      When I reported my husband that was exactly what each department said “I can’t imagine him doing that!”. No one wanted to deal with him and I was passed from department to department. The evidence suggested grooming – fraud or coerced compliance at best – regarding their sexual relationship. You can forget the part where he was married, stuff happens, but an under grad? In his lab? A safe place for learning and education? A young woman so willing to exchange her body for solutions and marks? His union is disgusting and it’s an abuse of power.

  • Thank you for writing this important piece Paul. What UBC did is being repeated in other universities and it’s time for it to end.

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