Saturday, November 21, 2015

If it happened here, there would be little difference

A disturbing article came up tonight on CBC, regarding the University of British Columbia. UBC expelled one of their history PhD students this week, after half a dozen of his classmates came forward with reports that he had assaulted them over the past couple of years. It took months for the department to do anything, and their chair (a woman whose work I hold in high regard) reportedly was more inclined to cover up the incidents than to do anything about them. As a graduate student in a history department at a different university, that hit home pretty hard.

I will preface what I am about to write by clarifying that there has been no direct threat to my physical safety within my own department.

In my department, we have an MA student who is rather volatile to his peers. He is the self-appointed ruler of the graduate computer lab, accosting certain other students when we use the facilities. Over the past two years, he's hovered over me and called me an "entitled bitch" while I used his preferred computer (not his own machine, just the one he liked the best - and the only one available when I entered the room), swore at me in the halls as though it was a manner of greeting, blocked me when I tried to navigate the halls using a mobility scooter, muttered "looks like you're getting what you deserve" when I came in once with an IV line for a medical treatment. In short, he's nasty. His poor behaviour, while not physically aggressive, is unwelcome and has been ongoing for approximately two years. Over a year ago, I spoke with my thesis supervisor, our graduate chair, and the university human rights officer. Well, it's not a human rights issue, supposedly. Supposedly, there's no rule against being a world-class jerk to your peers. The human rights office suggested mediation. My supervisor suggested, after he sent me a profanity-laden email, that I ask him for coffee to see if we could work things out (I did, and his emails escalated; she was evidently taking him to be a more reasonable person than he turned out to be). The graduate chair listened sympathetically, but ultimately did nothing that I know of. Nobody followed up with me, perhaps thinking that if they didn't know about further incidents that they could pretend that everything had somehow resolved. It hasn't - I've just gotten fed up with advocating for myself, so instead I've been waiting for him to either drop out or graduate, which should be quite soon now.

The result is that, since April 2014, I have only used the computer lab when I am reasonably sure he isn't on campus, or when I'm accompanied by a friend. I avoid passing his office late in the day when there aren't many people around. Since he works at the library and a couple of weeks ago refused to check out a book to me, I now make sure I don't go to that library location on days when he might be working there. The onus has fallen on me to avoid him so that I don't have to listen to his profanity and insults. I am fairly sure that I am physically safe in the department, but I do not feel emotionally safe there, and have not for some time now.

I am not the only graduate student who has issues with this particular man. He behaves this way to a few other people, and will make quite nasty comments about a particular faculty member to anyone whom he thinks might listen.

I know that this is worlds away from sexual assault. I'm not trying to make an equivalency here. But from the complacency that I have seen from my department, and their inaction in making any sort of tangible change to address his behaviour, I can say that I have exceptionally little confidence that my department would do anything differently.

The faculty I've mentioned here are good people. I like them, and respect them. This isn't about them - if they were personal friends of mine rather than my professors, I don't doubt that they'd be doing what my friends have done (go to the lab with me if I can't avoid printing something so that I don't need to be alone with him; urge me to report incidents; listen to me ranting about the whole situation). This is about an institutional culture that has silenced even some quite justice-oriented faculty, because we work in an environment where a man moving through the program and getting a degree unobstructed is more important than a woman not being berated and harassed.

So in short, if someone predatory (or with a very skewed idea of what constituted consent, in any case) came upon my department, I truly think it would have played out the same way. The question is how to change that culture, so that we can make sure that it doesn't happen here.

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