Graduate Student Society attempts to bury own report on campus sexual violence

The UBC Graduate Student Society (GSS) is attempting to suppress its own report critiquing UBC’s response to sexual assault complaints. UBC Insiders received copies of it from two separate individuals and after communicating with its author, Gabrielle John, we have decided to post it. The report, titled Strengthening Accountability Surrounding Issues of Sexual Violence: How UBC Process is Failing to Protect Graduate Students, contains critiques of UBC’s response to sexual assault complaints and concrete recommendations for changes that should be included in the new policy.

Gabrielle John, who until recently was the GSS’s Advocacy Officer, began writing the report in May 2015, after being approached by women from the history department about problems they were having while going through UBC’s sexual harassment reporting process. This is the same case which was later widely publicized in a CBC documentary, School of Secrets, and the subject of a UBC external investigation by labour and employment lawyer Paula Butler. However, at the time the report was initiated in May 2015, those details had not yet been made public and the report was one of the ways John was making an effort to assist the complainants in her role as GSS Advocacy Officer.

We have spoken to the author of the report, as well as all three named contributors. Except for Caitlin Cunningham, who was interviewed later, they all described the same process: the document was initiated through a conversation with Shirley Nakata, UBC’s Ombudsperson for Students. John and Nakata believed such a report was something of value that the GSS Advocacy office could do to act on the concerns of the grad students who had come forward. John spoke with the GSS VP Academic Enav Zusman, and with the General Manager Mark Wellington (her de facto boss after Zusman left on maternity leave) about writing this report – neither had expressed any concerns about it.

A few weeks ago, as the report was nearing completion, the GSS executive started making efforts to bury it. First, they tried to dismiss John two weeks before the end of her contract. Since this would have breached her contract due to insufficient notice provided, she continued until the end of January 2016 and finished writing the report. When she sent the final report to the general manager, president, and several VPs, she received no answer for 3 days, until other graduate students began emailing as well, expressing concern that the GSS intended to sit on it. Finally, the report was presented and discussed with GSS president Tobias Friedel on February 10 at an in-person meeting. At this meeting, it became clear to John that the Friedel did not intend to publish or circulate the report internally in its current form. Her impression was that he was concerned that the criticisms in the report would jeopardize the GSS’s working relationships with the administrators it was intended to be presented to. John subsequently formally sent out the final version of the report on Feb 15th with the request that it be circulated to the rest of the GSS executive and UBC’s administration.

According to John, the report was intended for publication and presentation by the GSS to the University’s administration, including the President, the VP Students, the Provost, the Vice-Chancellor of UBC Okanagan, and the AVP Equity and Inclusion. I have confirmed with the three named contributors to the report that they put their names on it with the intention that it would be published.

Tobias Friedel, the GSS president, thinks otherwise. He has stated that the report was meant for internal use only, and “was never intended for publication as a stand-alone document, but rather to inform policy development and support advocacy efforts”. Further, he said that “for such internal uses the report would likely be redacted, paraphrased or an executive summary provided to involved parties”. He also said the report would need to be vetted to ensure that it doesn’t expose the society to lawsuits. In a further email, he also expressed concern that publishing the report would jeopardize the reputation of the GSS Advocacy Office, citing that the work of the this office is usually confidential, and details beyond aggregated annual reports are not shared outsides the confines of the Advocacy Office itself.

These arguments are completely specious. We have confirmed that the author of the document and its contributors intended for it to be published; no one’s privacy is being compromised. It is hard to think of anything more damaging to the reputation of the GSS Advocacy Office than a concerted effort to bury a report that is supported by students who sought the society’s help. Furthermore, if it is meant for internal use to “inform” other efforts, there is no indication that this has occurred. GSS council has not been informed of its existence, and the Harassment and Discrimination ad hoc committee (which was struck after the report process began) was also not aware of it or involved in any way, according to its chair, Katerina Othonos. So we have a report that is neither going to the external audience it was intended for, nor to the internal audience that should have been aware of its existence much earlier. The irony is that this report brings up many similar issues that were subsequently highlighted in UBC’s own external investigation by Paula Butler. The AMS also passed an external policy on sexual assault in December 2015 which contains similar suggestions the university’s development of a new sexual assault policy. The contents of the GSS report are hardly defamatory, out-on-a-limb smears.

While Friedel sent me a long laundry-list of the GSS’s intended efforts around the issue of sexual assault on campus, none of them have actually generated any tangible outcome, at least 9 months after the GSS was initially approached. There has been no letter, no position statement, no policy – only “ongoing,” “collaborative,” “advocacy,” “conversations” – ie. nothing. This report (which by the way, is excellent, go read it) is the only substantial piece of work produced by the GSS on this topic. The GSS should be proud to have produced a thorough, scholarly, and strong document which highlights the stories of graduate students. It should also be proud that this work was initiated far before the public revelations in the media. But instead of embracing the document and using it as the backbone of all their “ongoing” efforts, the GSS executive, and the specifically the president, are doing their best to ignore and bury it.

The graduate students who came to the GSS Advocacy Office to report their experiences with reporting sexual harassment at UBC did so because they felt minimized and dismissed by the university and thought the society might be able to help. Now the society is treating them in the exact same manner.

disclosure: I am a member of the GSS council as a representative of RMES


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  1. As some readers may be aware, I have a connection to the GSS to disclose. From September 2014 to February 2016, I was employed full-time by the society as a Policy Researcher. That employment ended earlier this week. Due to that connection, I actually resisted pursuing this story when the report first landed in my inbox. I felt I was still a little too close to the situation to cover it with anything resembling objectivity. Full credit goes to Maayan for picking up the story and filling all the details. My participation in the reporting of this story was very limited (being cc’ed on some emails, correcting some grammar and style).

    With that as background/disclaimer, I will share a little bit more information from my point of view which did not appear in the story. Despite being a full-time employee of the society whose role was purportedly to help develop society policy, I had absolutely no idea that this report existed until it landed anonymously in my inbox. I want to be clear that I do not view this as negligence on Gabrielle’s part but rather on the part of society’s leadership. When staff, committees, and council all don’t know what’s going on with each other, it points to a fundamental lack of communication and coordination within the society.

    As some of the content of the story above would also suggest, it is my belief that this lack of coordination is purposeful. For many months, I was actively discouraged from taking on projects, from attending meetings, and from talking to any GSS members about any topic. Basically, I was given instructions to not do my job. I felt that I was purposefully isolated and that information was being deliberately withheld from me by the executive and society management. The few projects I did work on during this time were also never shared with committees, council, or other members of the GSS as far as I can tell.

    Posted by Neal Yonson | February 18, 2016, 3:39 pm
  2. Thanks for sharing this report. I haven’t read it in full but it seems to have some good ideas in it about how to better protect graduate students. I don’t see why there was a need for secrecy.

    Posted by Philip E | February 18, 2016, 6:38 pm
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