Is it time to breakout the #fakeapology hashtag again? We think so. As covered last week, and discussed in this week’s podcast, all is not well over at the Graduate Student Society, where a report that ought to have been the cornerstone of its policy and advocacy on the topic of sexual assault was instead ignored and obstructed (until we published it). After a dramatic council meeting last Thursday, at which GSS president Tobias Freidel had to take some heat, he sent out an email to all graduate students. Let us take a moment to read it closely.
GSS Responds to Concerns over Advocating for UBC Graduate Students on the Matter of Sexual Violence
Many of you have likely heard about a report Strengthening Accountability Surrounding Issues of Sexual Violence and the allegations that the Graduate Student Society (GSS) and myself in particular have attempted to bury this report. I would like to address some of the concerns that have been raised over the last few days below.
So far, so good.
But before I do so I would first like to take this opportunity to apologise to all graduate students I have disappointed with my approach of this issue. In my attempt to do due diligence and follow the proper protocols in place after I received the final report on Monday, February 15, 2016, I have failed to pick up on the escalating sense of urgency within parts of the graduate student community, and have not prioritised the review of the report sufficiently.
My attempts to perform due diligence and follow proper protocols involved not communicating with any of the people involved with the report and not sending it to any relevant part of the society that would be responsible for reviewing it. This is what happens to most reports in the GSS, so this is standard practice. Besides, I had no idea that this was an issue that had any sense of urgency behind it. How was I to know, after multiple grad students approached the society asking for help urgently and told me so to my face, repeatedly, followed by a high profile documentary, multiple broadcast emails from the university, and a formal investigation?
- Furthermore I have failed to appropriately communicate the steps being taken by the GSS with respect to the report and how it was meant to fit into the overall strategy of the organisation to address sexual violence at UBC. I am deeply sorry about my contributions to your sense of institutional betrayal, but I hope it will not distract you from the efforts being undertaken by other members of your GSS.
I am sorry, but not about trying to bury the report. I’m especially sorry that my failure to communicate might distract you from the laundry-list of half baked ideas to follow.
- I would like to continue these conversations with all involved parties and wish to attempt to rebuild the trust people have lost in me, and the GSS by extension. Please find below a few of the initiatives undertaken by a wide range of knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and committed GSS members.
I hope I can restore your trust by talking about everything other than the actual issue that caused the loss of faith, which I will not address at all.
- When the current executive team took office in May 2015 we quickly identified the need to find solutions to address harassment and discrimination at UBC, including sexual assault, as one of the major projects for the year. A project spanning multiple, if not all, portfolios within the Executive. We have therefore decided to take a multifaceted approach.
During the summer a GSS Ad Hoc Committee on Harassment and Discrimination was struck with a threefold purpose. Firstly to collect data on harassment and discrimination issues graduate students are facing at UBC and to learn more about the gaps in existing procedures.
Secondly to research best practices across Canada, the States and beyond in dealing with sexual violence and other forms of harassment and discrimination and how they can be applied to the UBC context.
Lastly the committee will use data and research to bring forth policy suggestions both for internal GSS processes as well as to strengthen our advocacy efforts with UBC, all levels of government, and stakeholder groups.
We struck a committee, which was completely isolated from the work already being done by a knowledgeable GSS staff member on the same issue. It was isolated from the AMS, faculty, and the university who were all working together on the same issue without us. We hope to succeed in reinventing the wheel!
- The committee has since studied several processes at other universities to learn from both successes and failures alike. In the fall the digital portal mygradstory.ca went live to help with narrative data collection. Climate surveys are currently under development to deepen our understanding of the situation of graduate students at UBC.
Even though the multiple reporting avenues on campus have been identified as one of the major problems faced by people facing sexual harassment, let’s start another one.
- Furthermore, together with our provincial and federal partners, in the Alliance of BC Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, respectively, we have been advocating to government and other stakeholder groups, like Universities Canada, to appropriately address matters of sexual violence on campuses on a larger scale.
We’ve been talking to people. Lots of people. But can show no documented process or results thereof.
Crisis management, although very important to appropriately support survivors, is only part of the approach the GSS has been taking; we deem intervention and prevention programs as just as important to address the matter holistically. On November 2nd, we met with Janet Mee (Director, Access and Diversity) and CJ Rowe (Diversity Advisor, Sexual Assault Intervention and Prevention) to seek their support for the creation of a “grad2grad” active bystander training programs via train-the-trainer approaches as well as community service learning programs that would provide graduate students an opportunity to mentor and to educate younger students in the community on matters of consent.
This endeavour was met with enthusiasm and on February 10th, the GSS Commissioners for Experiential Learning and Mentorship, and Indigenous Affairs joined me in a meeting with CJ Rowe to begin tactical planning for execution of the program. As a result of this meeting, the GSS is actively seeking UBC graduate students to volunteer for these important programs. (Volunteers can register now at email@example.com)
We can only cite two relevant meetings, three months apart, about these initiatives. We still don’t know what this program will really entail but you should definitely volunteer! Never mind that these types of programs can already be arranged through places like SASC. Meanwhile, we blithely ignored the university process now taking place to create a standalone sexual assault policy.
- We hope that these measures will help to reduce the incidences of harassment and discrimination, and particularly sexual violence, at UBC and the larger community.
There are multiple other ongoing projects that at least touch on some of the issues arising from harassment and discrimination or its prevention in some capacity, albeit maybe not quite as directly as the ones mentioned above.
Remember how that harassment and discrimination committee was supposed to be collecting data and doing studies to determine which direction was the best way to go for the society? Actually, the executive just went ahead and did things without telling anybody.
- We are, in collaboration with the CUPE2278, looking into more extensive TA training after researching TA training conducted at twenty leading North American universities. Additionally, the GSS is exploring the development of new mentorship and experiential learning opportunities for graduate students.
Nevermind that the TA union already renegotiated their contract and ratified it in August of 2015, making this less salient than it would have been, I think that ‘looking into’ something entitles it to be on this list.
- We created additional roles within the organisation to address matters of equity, wellbeing, and indigenous affairs more appropriately, knowledgeably, and efficiently.
We’ve brought volunteer part time people on board who will somehow address this better than the experienced staff members we forced out of the organization.
- Moreover, we are looking towards additions to Graduate Student Orientation to further improve the transition into graduate school, including but not limited to workshops like “working and studying in the Canadian context” for international students who often face the additional challenge of adapting to a different cultural environment.
If only the GSS’s training had been in place for international students, things might have been different for the students in the history department. In emails reported by the CBC, Dmitry Mordvinov wrote “I do realize that in Canada drunk sex is non-consensual, although this thought unfortunately did not cross my mind back then. I should, of course, have left her alone.” Oh wait, things probably would have been exactly the same.
- The report is but one of the pieces in our overall efforts to address sexual violence and enhance graduate student life at UBC.
I would like to minimize the importance of the only substantial piece of work done on behalf of the organization on this topic.
- The GSS Executive has consistently and strongly communicated in statements to the press and in meetings with senior university administrators
But not in any formal letter, policy or submission
that graduate students are uniquely vulnerable to harassment and discrimination and sexual violence on campus due to their dependence on decisions made by their faculty advisors regarding the research funding they receive as well as the assessment of their academic progress.
While the GSS is excited and encouraged by new collaborative ventures with the University mentioned above, we are still facing some level of resistance on some fronts. In meetings with President Martha Piper and VP Students Louise Cowin we have encountered doubts and disbelief regarding the unique vulnerability of graduate students.
People at the university don’t take us seriously. I don’t understand why.
- It is our hope that the data gathered through the creation of the report as well as mygradstory.ca will strengthen our position in convincing the UBC Administration that a “one size fits all” approach on the matter of sexual assault will fail to appropriately address the issue from a graduate student perspective.
We’re collecting stories about your most personal and difficult experiences, with a conclusion already in mind. Tell them to us so that we can sit on them, except for the ones that already support our conclusions.
- As GSS President I wish to reaffirm the organisation’s commitment to advocating on behalf of UBC’s graduate students on issues of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination and help them in their struggles to navigate processes and available resources.
I hope, given my lengthy but not-germane email, that you find these platitudes convincing.
Tobias Friedel, President
Graduate Student Society – UBC Vancouver
This isn’t to be all doom and gloom – it seems that GSS council will be probably soon be adopting a position statement based on the recommendations in the report, while not ratifying the report in its entirety. This is now impossible since the three contributors who were interviewed for the report (and from whom we obtained consent before we published it here at UBC insiders) have now revoked their consent to put their names or their stories on any official document of the GSS. Their sense of attrition from the unsustainable level or involvement in bureaucratic processes has taken its toll, as once again, an organization professing to support them has not done so adequately.
Still, I’m modestly optimistic that there will be a positive result of this in the narrow sense of the creation of a solid GSS policy around sexual assault based on the well-researched and founded recommendations in the report. But that optimism is thanks to the hard work of Gabrielle John, and some wonderful and hardworking councilors who took on the task of creating a position statement over a short period of time this week. It is not thanks to any member of the executive, who have done nothing at best and actively obstructed the appropriate use of this report at worst. The red flags that this story has raised, around communication, human resources, and the conduct of the GSS executive and General Manager Mark Wellington are still flying high.