VANCOUVER — University of British Columbia faculty members have signed an open letter apologizing for not doing more to ensure the institution protects students from sexual assaults.
More than 80 faculty members from a wide range of disciplines have signed the letter dated Jan. 6.
“As faculty members, we share in a responsibility to ensure that UBC fulfill its obligations to protect its community. We apologize to the people affected for not doing and not demanding better,” the letter says.
The university has come under fire after a group of students and alumni complained that it took a year and a half for school administrators to act on multiple sexual assault allegations against a PhD student.
The university has hired labour lawyer Paula Butler to review its response to the allegations and has promised to hold discussions with faculty, students and staff to develop a stand-alone sexual assault policy.
But the letter says more than a discussion is needed. The signees pledge to take an active role to have a new policy in place by the start of the next academic year in September.
Jonathan Ichikawa, an associate professor of philosophy, said about 30 or 40 faculty members met in December to discuss how to show support for affected students and pressure the university to improve its policy. One of the ideas was to craft the open letter, he said.
“I think it’s clear that in at least some instances the university has failed some of its students,” he said. “We wanted to really apologize for not doing what we needed to do to be ready for these kinds of problems, and second, to pledge to do better.”
Butler’s report is expected in February, with a summary made available. The school has said the full report will not be made public due to privacy legislation.
Sara-Jane Finlay, associate vice-president of equity and inclusion, said she will announce next week a broader review that will help the university develop a new sexual assault policy. Currently, it relies on a general discrimination and harassment policy and the student code of conduct.
That review, she said, will be undertaken by an expert panel that will make recommendations to the university. Interim university president Martha Piper wants to see “significant steps” made by the end of her term in June, said Finlay.
Finlay said she has met with some of the faculty members who crafted the open letter and hopes to draw on their expertise as well as that of students who were personally affected.
“There’s so much we can learn from people here at the university,” she said. “Then we have to balance trying to consult as widely as possible with the expediency of getting something into place.”
Glynnis Kirchmeier, one of the women who complained about the PhD student’s behaviour, said she would like to participate in policy discussions but has not heard from Finlay since she and other complainants held a news conference in November.
Kirchmeier is planning to launch a human-rights case against the school and said she has been approached by 15 people who allege the university failed to act upon, and even suppressed, their sexual assault complaints. She doesn’t expect all 15 will be part of the case.
She said she has spoken with Butler and felt as though she was listened to. But she questioned who the school was protecting by keeping the final report private, given that some women have come forward publicly and names and details could be redacted.
“This is a public institution. It really doesn’t have a sense of public accountability,” she said. “I don’t buy the argument that the reason they’re keeping it secret is to protect the women.”