Following widespread allegations of sexual violence on campus in September 2021, Western University has issued a pair of reports it hopes offer a “roadmap for transformative change.”
The first, produced internally by the Action Committee on Gender-Based Sexual Violence, outlines recommendations from students, faculty, staff and community experts. The second marks the culmination of an independent review summarizing interviews with Western student leaders, faculty, staff, university administrators, and London emergency response personnel.
Both reports highlight resources needed for survivor-centred gender-based sexual violence prevention, response, and training. And both note there’s an urgent need to address the university’s “toxic party culture.”
The events of Sept. 10 and 11, 2021, occurred during orientation week, when first-year students transition to campus and residence life. Rumours circulated widely on social media alleging acts of predatory sexual violence that involved around 30 young women being drugged. In response, around 8,000 students walked out of class on Sept. 17. Both the university faculty association and Western University president and vice-chancellor Alan Shepard formally supported the walkout.
The internal university report was led by Nadine Wathen, Canada Research Chair in mobilizing knowledge on gender-based violence, and psychologist Terry McQuaid, director of student wellness and well-being. The committee consulted 900 campus members, two-thirds of whom were students, plus 60 members of the London Coordinating Committee to End Woman Abuse. The group delivered 22 recommendations in the areas ranging from survivor supports and resources, to environmental safety.
The report also identified eight high-priority steps: establishing an education committee on gender-based sexual violence (GBSV); strengthening survivor supports; creating a GBSV reporting dashboard; including an anti-GBSV statement and information on support resources in all course outlines and syllabi; preventing GBSV in policy and practice; prohibiting intimate or sexual employee-student relationships; creating a safe campus environment; and developing a multi-partner GBSV communication strategy.
The independent review was led by legal scholar Nathalie Des Rosiers, principal of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, and Sonya Nigam, executive co-ordinator for the Canadian Association for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment in Higher Education. Ms. Des Rosiers and Ms. Nigam reported on policy gaps, procedural failures, and recommended actions, gathering data from interviews with student leaders, faculty, staff, university administrators and emergency responders in the community.
The independent report issued 17 recommendations under three broad themes: embedding prevention of gender-based sexual violence into the fabric of campus life, improving orientation management for first-year students and emergency response co-ordination, and addressing troubling aspects of orientation culture. The report notes, “Orientation and adaptation to university and residence life are times of high risk for sexual and gender-based violence.”
Centring student voices
Lauren Jarman, vice-president of university affairs at the university students council commended the university’s internal report for its alignment with the recommendations of student leaders, referencing the council’s own policy paper on countering sexual and gender-based violence. “Student voices were centred throughout this process,” said Ms. Jarman, who was a student during the September 2021 incidents. She hopes university administration will keep students informed about next steps.
Asked by University Affairs for his response to the reports and their recommendations, President Shepard issued a statement, saying: “When sexual violence happens on a university campus, it is devastating for survivors and their families,” noting the ripple effects permeate the whole community. The recommendations are already leading to “real and lasting change,” the statement said, noting that several of the recommendations have already been implemented, while the university is in the process of moving forward on others.
Changes that have already been adopted include rethinking orientation week, establishing an advisory committee devoted to tackling gender-based and sexual violence, and developing mandatory education and training for incoming students, those living in residence, student leaders, faculty and staff.
Treena Orchard, a medical anthropologist at the university’s school of health studies, has been critical of Frosh week as supporting rape culture. She described both the internal and external reports as well documented and thorough. The external report “didn’t mince words,” she said.
Another change that has come about from the recommendations is an end to the practice of volunteer student mentors (known as “sophs”) adopting fake names during orientation week. “They are usually very sexual names,” said Dr. Orchard, who studies gender-based violence but was not a member of the action committee. “It may sound small,” she said, but “change is good,” noting that sophs are important leaders during a prominent week. Orientation week organizers will also provide care tents for mental-health support, two-week paid training for soph leadership teams, live-in safety ambassadors in residences, soph access to residences, and round the clock crisis support for gender-based sexual violence.
Dealing with fraternities, sororities
Dr. Orchard has formally studied safety on campus, noting it extends beyond infrastructure considerations such as the distance between classes, and campus lighting. “There’s also the emotional nature of safety,” said Dr. Orchard, who found that only one of 30 students surveyed felt that Western’s campus was a safe space.
One issue noted in both reports and by Dr. Orchard is the role of fraternities and sororities in addressing the problem. “Frat houses are known as a space of danger, consistently, not just here,” said Dr. Orchard, noting they have a reputation for predatory behaviour such as involuntary drugging, often by spiking drinks, to commit rape. While Greek Life fraternities are not officially connected with Western, “There is still such a strange deference to them,” she said.
There is a recent precedent for addressing the longstanding culture of toxic masculinity associated with frat houses. Fraternity members attending the University of British Columbia have been required to take workshops on sexual consent, bystander intervention and healthy masculinity following a vote by the Inter-Fraternity Council in 2019.
One item Dr. Orchard feels is particularly important is the hiring of a full-time permanent senior administrator overseeing efforts to reduce gender-based and sexual violence, which Western hopes to address with the forthcoming appointment of a special adviser to the provost and vice-president, academic, who will lead a new GBSV advisory committee, which will include student, staff and faculty representatives. The university needs someone “who has the eye and the ear of the president of the university,” Dr. Orchard said, “because these things happen with chilling frequency.”