UBC had a rough few years, characterized by abundant media attention surrounding the university’s mishandling of a string of sexual assault allegations from more than six women regarding one UBC PhD student, Dmitry Mordvinov.
The media scrum peaked when the CBC’s The Fifth Estate released an in-depth investigation, “School of Secrets,” into the way the administration had addressed the assaults. It took the university over a year and a half to take action against Mordvinov, finally expelling him in a manner that the CBC called “quietly.”
According to Glynnis Kirchmeier, a former UBC master’s student and one of the women who made complaints again Mordvinov, she spoke to 10 employees from 4 offices within the university over a timeline of 22 months. This led her to file a human rights complaint against the university — a process that is still ongoing — for what she said was the discrimination inherent in UBC’s untimely response. A Board of Governors document from 2015 shows that over a period of a year and a half, UBC received 273 files but only 6 were referred for formal investigation under Policy 3 (UBC’s general discrimination policy).
In response to the Fifth Estate story, UBC apologized and conducted an independent review, which highlighted how ineffectively UBC’s policies were working together and found a lack of clarity as well as unnecessary delays surrounding the reporting structure of sexual assaults at UBC.
Former UBC President Martha Piper said that the university was beginning work on an entirely separate policy to deal with instances of sexual assault. But with the passage of Bill 23 in May 2016, the provincial government mandated that all BC post-secondary institutions have a stand-alone sexual misconduct policy in place. It gave institutions a one-year timeline to do so.
After two drafts and rounds of community consultation, UBC’s Board of Governors approved the much-anticipated Policy 131 (“Sexual Assault and Other Sexual Misconduct”) on April 13, 2017. It was touted as the document that would revolutionize how UBC addressed cases of sexual assault: a clear reporting structure, a formalized investigation process and accountable, specialized staff.
The biggest change that the policy mandated was the creation of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO). SVPRO is an integral part of the policy: it’s meant to be the one-stop-shop office to help realize the policy’s goals of education, awareness and support. The office and its work — receiving disclosures and reports, coordinating support services and accommodations, acting as a support and liaison during investigations, developing sexual violence education and more — are essentially intended to be the physical embodiment of the document.
It has been just over a year since that policy came into effect at UBC on May 18, 2017. And while UBC cites a reasonably lengthy checklist of things they have done since then, the holes left in implementation are the ones that survivors routinely seem to be falling through.
“The AMS has substantial concerns that the University is failing to clearly communicate the details of Policy 131.”
This is one line from a six-page document that the AMS submitted to the most recent meeting of the UBC Board of Governors’s People, Community & International Committee, held on April 13. The document made serious assertions that there has been inadequate implementation of Policy 131, citing problems with communication and awareness.
This isn’t the first time that student representatives have spoken up about their concerns: for months, AMS executives, Senate student members and student Board members have been trying to nudge administration forward. The recent submission was meant to serve as a more public, more explicit push for action.
Holmes, who is now beginning his second term as VPAUA and who penned the report to the Board, has been the AMS’s core advocate on the topic of sexual misconduct — he began his role in September 2017, four months after Policy 131 came into effect. In the months that have passed since then, he has watched the policy struggle to get off the ground.
“It really is a failure that we are now a year into this policy, and I don’t think that we’re better off from when we passed the policy,” said Holmes.
In a March interview with The Ubyssey, he described an overall lack of awareness of the policy and its implications: not just on the part of student leadership, which Mack is hugely concerned about, but from campus as a whole.
UBC’s efforts at communication over the summer and into the fall of 2017 amounted to a few community-wide email blasts urging recipients to read the legalese-laden 13-page policy. One such email went out right after the policy was passed in April, another went out in September and the new policy has been briefly mentioned in UBC’s “FYI” newsletters. The university also held their eighth annual “sexual assault awareness month” in January of this year, which mostly consisted of recurrent boothing in high-traffic locations and a few panels on topics like dismantling rape culture.
“The lack of community engagement that there’s been to try and disseminate information about this policy... it’s as if Policy 131 was passed and everything went dark,” said Holmes.
Statistics from the 2018 Academic Experience Survey (AES), which were included in Holmes’s Board submission, found that a fifth of students said they felt UBC has not done a good job communicating available support resources for survivors of sexual assault. A fifth of students said they would not feel comfortable using SVPRO.
But when a community member doesn’t even know that this policy exists, how can they understand its implications and their role within the community to carry it out? What is the use of having concrete sexual assault disclosure and reporting procedures if those that need to use them haven’t even heard of them?
“We have residence advisors, we have academic advisors, we have a whole range of support staff, program directors, faculty — all of whom are completely uninformed of what the policy says, how to receive a disclosure, how to redirect students to [the new Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office],” said Kevin Doering, former student Board member and a former student Senator, in a March interview.
Jeanie Malone, a returning student Board member, echoed this concern.
“It doesn’t seem like all academic leadership are aware of 131 or its ramifications,” said Malone in a March interview. “So things like, even just how to operate with disclosures under the new policy, aren’t always clear.”
“There needs to be education for folks in those leadership positions … not necessarily mandated but normalized education for folks in those positions about supporting survivors of sexual assault,” said SASC’s Kachouh. “And having those systems in place be survivor-centric.”
In an interview set up by UBC Public Affairs, which featured a roundtable of seven people — including Cowin, Boyce and McCallum — central to approaching the issue of sexual misconduct at UBC, nobody could speak to exactly which campus members had received role-specific communications on Policy 131 and/or disclosure training. Cowin mentioned that the “top executives” at the university know about the policy, and SVPRO’s Boyce added that academic advisors had been given training on accommodating survivors.
“We know that survivors are more likely to disclose for the first time to someone they trust,” said Boyce in that mid-March interview. “So a peer — and whether that peer is in a leadership position or not, they’re more likely to get a disclosure than [SVPRO]. The goal is, how do we then connect those peers that hear those disclosures, or the survivors that are disclosing themselves, to this office? That is the missing link.”
This reflects Mack’s experience: student survivors are much more likely to go to someone they know — like their sorority executive — than an institutionalized office they’ve never visited before. Yet there has been little planning as to how to make that connection on campus.
“We’re failing survivors when we do not train people on how to receive disclosures, when people don’t even know what Policy 131 is, when they’re in a position of power and they could be someone who could be receiving a disclosure. And that’s a major issue,” said Holmes. Research conducted in 2006 by Dr. Courtney E. Ahrens, of the department of psychology at California State University, found that the first person survivors talk to will influence how and whether they talk about it again.
“It’s not that person’s fault, but rather, it’s the fault of who should be disseminating this information.”
Some are fully aware of the policy’s existence and what role they might play in carrying it out, but often, those people are the ones positioned within the echo chamber of university communications. UBC Director of Investigations under Policy 131, McCallum, said that she’s optimistic about the level of engagement that she has seen on the Vancouver campus, but Cowin added that spreading the information to those that do not want to care or do not think they need to care will take more time.
“Given the circumstances right now, in terms of the complexity and size [of campus] … We’ve got to really think about this as an awareness that will deepen over time. And I think, though, that we also perhaps need to be a little bit more proactive and intentional about taking stock right now,” Cowin said. “I think we’ve heard some concerns that have been raised by student leaders on awareness levels.”
“In terms of, how do we empower the community, I think there’s a piece there that hasn’t really been explored,” said Cristina Ilnitchi, the current AMS VP External.
Holmes has repeatedly voiced concerns about the repercussions of not clearly communicating the disclosure structure that Policy 131 put into place. At the very base level, he said, educating any UBC staff that are in positions of relative power on the existence of Policy 131 will prove essential to cutting down these types of negative experiences.
“UBC is failing some of our most vulnerable students when survivors are sent through a perpetual referral system and are told they must disclose multiple times,” the submission that he wrote to the Board of Governors in April reads. “UBC must implement a system where all employees at UBC are educated on the procedures included in Policy 131 or we will continue to fail at supporting survivors.”
Even better, training student leaders on receiving and responding to instances of sexual assault in their communities could prove vital to the provision of that support.
“I’ve heard countless stories of people who have received disclosures, and they don’t know how to receive a disclosure. They don’t know how to talk to that person. And that’s the major issue: nobody knows. That’s the major issue. And that comes back to implementation at the end of the day: that there hasn’t been a good campaign around this, a public campaign to ensure that people know what this policy is,” said Holmes.
“And we’re not asking everyone to read Policy 131, because that is somewhat unrealistic to make every community member read a very long policy and understand it … we need to be educating them on the parts of the policy that would affect average community members, that would affect people in positions of power that might receive disclosures, and we’re not doing that right now.”
The policy laid out the new blueprint for how UBC was supposed to manage sexual assault disclosures and reports. But without the dense infrastructure in place that the policy requires and broad knowledge of the correct process in the interim, key components of the policy were left hanging. An interim office was created, and additional support services were contracted out to a company called Peak Resilience.
The Director of Investigations, McCallum, was hired in August 2017. Boyce was hired in October 2017 to head up SVPRO. Ariana Barer, the Vancouver office’s prevention educator, was not hired until February 2018. Recruiting more staff for the office is said to be an ongoing process.
“The policy came out and then the hiring began,” said Kachouh. “And I don’t think that was okay for survivors because again, we [at SASC] didn’t know where to go with survivors who wanted to go through the reporting procedure when there wasn’t anyone in place for those offices.”
Cowin attributed the delay to the challenge of finding and attracting the relevant expertise, saying UBC underestimated the time it would take to get organized. She also noted that the original funding set aside for both the office and the investigations team was inadequate, calling the process a “build-up.”
“As the directors moved into their positions, they were slammed with business right from the get-go,” said Cowin. “So it wasn’t like they had the luxury of moving in, getting acquainted with the policy, taking their time.… Then the busy administrators … kind of went about their everyday, hugely busy lives — and sexual violence, I think, dropped off their line of sight.”
The issues read like a cyclical problem: new talent was hired, and without the innate institutional knowledge to jump into action, took time to find their footing; meanwhile, the administrators that helped with the process of writing and approving the process stepped back, seeing that there were people in the roles; without that help, it was harder for only a handful of people to actualize the policy.
“Now we’ve got the right expertise. We’ve got new budget money coming in to support our commitments. So it’s about context experts, it’s about university commitment, it’s about budget,” said Cowin. “And I think we have those things in place now.”
A $500,000 budget was allocated to SVPRO for the 2016/17 fiscal year, with a top-up of $200,000 needed for “space renovation.” Moving into the 2017/18 fiscal year, the Board of Governors more than doubled the original amount, making the total yearly budget of SVPRO a recurring $1,055,000. Similarly, the original $192,135 allocation for the investigations office needed a $224,000 top-up, and the 2017/18 fiscal year allowed for $530,135 in annual funding — again more than double the original budget.
Cowin acknowledged that the delay in hiring ultimately had repercussions for carrying out the next steps of policy implementation.
“I think that we got into a bit of a negative space at the Board because of the AMS’s letter that I don’t believe was justified given what I do think has been pretty solid progress, given that this has been a complex new policy to implement in its first year and with late starts in the hiring. And I think that those late starts in particular are important [to acknowledge],” she said.
For example, Policy 131 says UBC will be “providing comprehensive and inclusive sexual misconduct education, prevention, and response initiatives,” and commits SVPRO to leading “the education program to countering broader social attitudes regarding gender, sex and sexuality that normalize sexual misconduct and undermine equality.”
With Barer, whose sector of the office will be running those kinds of campaigns, still very new into her role, SVPRO has not previously had the personnel capacity nor the resources to carry out those kinds of commitments.
“We’re essentially at the point now where we’ve tried to put all the structures in place for this policy but we haven’t done any of the education — and without the education, the policy can’t be implemented,” said Holmes. “People can’t know to go to SVPRO if they don’t know SVPRO exists.”
SASC, which has been an institution on campus since 2002, is not connected to the university and offers services such as crisis and emotional support, advocacy, accompaniment to anyone accessing the sexual assault service at the UBC Urgent Care Centre, support groups and education and outreach. But its funding isn’t unlimited — a proposed doubling of their yearly student fee, from $3.55 to $7, ran as a referendum in the March 2018 AMS elections, but did not pass due to divisive controversy over several other fee adjustments that it was attached with.
They also have limited resources with which to instigate relationships with potentially vulnerable communities. Last year, the fraternities reached out to SASC to undergo consent workshopping from a SASC outreach worker, but in the end, only three out of the initial 10 fraternities — Beta Theta Pi, Kappa Sigma Epsilon, and Delta Kappa Epsilon — received the presentation. A few never followed up, a couple never showed and in one case, SASC had to reschedule due to a lack of staff capacity in January.
Kachouh said that in September 2017, SASC saw an approximately 80 per cent increase of survivors accessing its services compared to September of the previous year — a potentially promising reflection of the new policy.
“A lot of them were quoting Policy 131, but because the policy was still new, we weren’t very well-versed on it either,” she said. “It was hard to truly support survivors in seeking the support they needed, especially because there was no [SVPRO] office in place to do that work.”
UBC has now opened some channels of communication with SASC as to how they might work best together, but Kachouh said that the process of figuring it out has been slow.
According to her, SASC liaises with SVPRO on some things; SVPRO as a university body has the power to arrange accommodations, so sometimes when a survivor comes to SASC, SVPRO arranges the necessary accommodations while SASC supports the survivor and follows up with both parties.
But most importantly, survivors have both offices as options.
“I think something that is really valuable about the SASC and about our work is that we are grassroots, we are student-run, we’re not a part of the institution, and I think that’s really valuable to survivors, especially when you’ve experienced violence from the institution,” said Kachouh.
“I think we hold a really important role in holding the university accountable and even holding SVPRO accountable to Policy 131 and making it better for survivors.”
While those hired to work within SVPRO seem capable and passionate, Holmes said, the continual process of getting the office up and running was time that could have been spent better supporting survivors. And putting people brand-new to UBC to the huge task of creating their own structure to carry out an expansive policy may have been inadequate.
“We are highly impressed by the individuals hired in both the SVPRO and the Investigations Office at UBC. They have worked with us to identify many of these issues and are currently working with us to address them,” the AMS submission to the Board reads. “We do not, however, believe that this issue is being treated with the seriousness it ought to by other UBC departments and are incredibly disappointed that the AMS had to identify many of these issues for UBC.”
Coming into the role, Boyce said, UBC was actually a lot better off than she expected it to be given the impression she’d garnered from negative media attention.
“I always want to acknowledge that there’s a lot of good people, a lot of good places, that have historically supported survivors on this campus. And so it was a lot easier for me and for us, I think, to build out those relationships because we have the same goal in mind: and that was to make sure that survivors were safe and that they have the supports that they needed.”
“The creation of SVPRO has been successful in my opinion, but just creating a policy and then creating the body that’s going to receive disclosures is not successful implementation of policy,” said Doering.
No Senate agenda from the time of Policy 131’s passage has included the words “sexual misconduct” or “Policy 131” until the April 18 meeting. No minutes of previous Senate meetings are online following those detailing the April 2017 meeting.
At the February 28 meeting, the draft of UBC’s new strategic plan — President Santa Ono’s “Shaping UBC’s Next Century,” to replace Steven Toope’s 2009 “Place and Promise” — came before Senate, asking for endorsement. “Shaping UBC’s Next Century” hopes to set the tone of the university’s future for the next 10 years, from 2018 to 2028.
The plan presented at that meeting contained no mention of sexual misconduct, something that Holmes, Doering and other members of Senate found surprising — and upsetting.
“One of the most appalling things to me was when the strategic plan came in its final draft form to Senate and said nothing about sexual violence. They talked about multiple issues and in the student experience section, it talked about all of the nice things that we’re doing for student well-being. But it took students Senators asking and requesting for that to be in the plan at the very meeting that it was coming to to be endorsed,” said Holmes.
“I think that shows some of the mentality around this. I think that this is an issue that some people don’t want to touch and I think that’s not something people should have a choice about.”
The March 21 Senate meeting — they occur monthly — was cancelled, citing a lack of “sufficient business” due to not enough work being brought forward by the requisite committees for consideration. But in a letter to The Ubyssey, three student Senators were quick to point out that “it is probably unnecessary to remind you that there are an uncountable number of things that the Senate could be working on — like … [Policy 131] that has yet to be implemented in Senate policy more than a year later.”
“The Senate Academic Policy Committee hasn’t had a chance to discuss this issue you raise,” said Paul Harrison, chair of that committee, in a March 20 email. The Ubyssey requested an interview after the next meeting just a few days later, but in a March 27 email, Harrison said the committee had only had an “initial discussion” of the implications of Policy 131 for academic policy, such as academic accommodations.
“We agreed that the matter needs to be investigated and generated some ideas about how to proceed. However, there is nothing more to report at this time,” he wrote.
Senate does not meet as a whole during the summertime. The date of a September 2018 meeting has yet to be posted online.
“I think our challenge is that Policy 131 speaks about accommodations, but what we’re hearing more and more in implementation is academic concessions, which is a different thing. And that wasn’t on our radar earlier,” said Chris Eaton, associate registrar, director for Senate and the chair of the Agenda Committee.
Similarly, Doering said, multiple student Senators were raising concerns about a variety of matters in early 2018, such as the lack of review of the potential overlap between existing academic policy and Policy 131.
“I’m almost reluctant to say that [university response] has even been ‘reactive’ because we’ve encountered, if anything, resistance when we have raised these concerns,” he said.
“Certainly a desire to move forward has been raised by student members of Senate,” said Eaton. “It’s also been raised by administrators at the university, so I wouldn’t say it’s solely a student interest, I’d say the UBC administration is also very interested in that work.”
In response to concerns raised by multiple Senators, Ono reassured Senate that sexual violence would be incorporated into the plan.
The latest draft, which was brought to the April 18 meeting and posted online, says that UBC recognizes the “past injustices” that have occured on campus with regards to sexual violence, and that UBC “will continue to work with all community members to advance knowledge and practice in regards to sexual violence.”
In a statement sent to The Ubyssey, Ono wrote, “During the consultation period for the strategic plan, we received thousands of thoughtful comments. This included feedback from student leaders that it was important to specifically acknowledge UBC’s efforts to combat sexual violence and this feedback is reflected in the plan’s final version.”
The VP Students’s portfolio can only be described as expansive: the office is “responsible for shaping the experience and learning environment for UBC undergraduate and graduate students,” which at UBC includes athletics and recreation, student development and services, as well as student housing and hospitality services.
“Part of the problem with implementation is that they haven’t actually set up the infrastructure to implement it,” said Doering, attributing many of issues that he and others raise to lack of oversight. “There is no one with the time or the resources to go around and find all the places where this policy will affect how we go about operating this university.”
Throughout the writing of Policy 131 over 2016 and early 2017, UBC had a formalized Sexual Assault Policy Committee, which sunsetted when the policy was approved. A Sexual Assault Steering Committee, created on directive from Ono in late October 2016, was to meet throughout the hiring of the heads of the SVPRO and the investigations office, said Cowin.
The mandate of the steering committee says that in addition to policy feedback, they would “Work with existing groups and/or establish representative subcommittees to accomplish specific tasks related to creating an effective response to sexual assault through education, prevention, and awareness.”
According to records posted online, the steering committee last met on June 6, 2017. Since then, there has been little formalized structure in place.
“We have not yet really landed on what the appropriate governance structure is with respect to sexual violence, sexual assault moving forward.… [The former VP Human Resources] Lisa Castle and myself did strike something that we call the Sexual Assault Advisory Committee and we did meet once in November,” said Cowin.
A Sexual Violence Advisory Committee — composed of Boyce, Cowin, Holmes, Thistle, VP Equity and Inclusion Sara-Jane Finlay, McCallum, UBCO SVPRO Director Shilo St. Cyr, among others — met for the first time in November 2017, discussing what the committee itself should look like. A second meeting was scheduled three months later — for February 14 — but after being cancelled and rescheduled multiple times, was rescheduled by Boyce again on February 9.
“While we know we need your knowledge and advice we feel that we’re not yet ready to engage you fully,” the email from Boyce reads.
“If this is the only active committee responsible for sexual violence issues on campus, meeting once every 3 months is not adequate. The entire UBC community deserves to have a clear avenue that is publicly advertised to address these issues,” Holmes wrote back.
The advisory committee met again recently, in April.
Doering suggested that without a concerted effort that spans departments and faculties, Policy 131 won’t find a proper foothold at UBC.
“I think that the general sense that I get from the administration and from the university is that there are people who think that this isn’t their problem and that this is somehow unrelated to the work that they’re doing,” he said. “And I think that every person in the administration or every UBC administrator that thinks this isn’t their problem is failing students.”
Cowin disagrees with the sentiment.
“I do think that the University of British Columbia is taking sexual misconduct and sexual assault with the seriousness with which it’s deserved,” she said, citing the increased budgetary investment as an example.
Through repeated efforts, the channel of communication between student governance and the administration seems to be improving, said Holmes, and there has been more recognition of what the issues with implementation are.
“Specific issues that have been raised through our student stakeholders have been around jurisdiction, have been around definitions of consent and disclosure and report, have been around the role and clarity of the SVPRO and the director of investigations, who does what and are we clear on that,” said Cowin, “on accommodations and concessions, both academic and health, alternative dispute resolution procedures, investigation timeline, the intersection with Senate and Board policies, intersection between students, staff and faculty … so those are the kinds of things that we’ve heard need to be addressed.”
“I do believe that there is an effort to hear the concerns of the AMS and that that’s now been shown — through us bringing our concerns forward — but part of the issue is that it shouldn’t be on us to be bringing those concerns forward,” said Holmes.
He also wants to hear from campus survivors as to how the university could better support them, both presently and in the future, and hopes that any future policy inspection would include or at least seek that representation.
“If implementation doesn’t take a survivor-centric approach, then it’s not fulfilling the original reason why the policy was created,” said Doering.
The institution itself has outlined its own issues: the University Sexual Assault Panel Report, from 2015, noted that “the current climate at UBC certainly calls for urgency on policies and procedures relating to sexual violence.” But over the last year, without clear structures or plans, UBC has struggled to address what its own findings show, and students are saying that the university is not treating Policy 131 with the appropriate urgency.
“I think it’s a problem of UBC administration, and UBC not doing enough, and people not saying enough to each other,” said Mack. “And I think conversations are starting to happen, but there’s far more that needs to.”
Part Three: Next
How does UBC hope to address sexual misconduct moving forward, and where are students filling the gaps?