International Women’s Day: A personal perspective from Janet Morrison, York’s vice-provost students

Janet Morrison, vice-provost students at York University
Janet Morrison
Janet Morrison
Janet Morrison

In this reflection penned for the Toronto Star newspaper as part of its coverage of International Women’s Day, York University’s Vice-Provost Students Janet Morrison examines the lengthy dialogue surrounding sexual assault on college and university campuses.

For over 30 years, I have been proud to learn and lead within college and university communities committed to social justice, equity and respect. This is particularly true today: International Women’s Day. Canadian campuses are home to thousands of impressive female students who now comprise a significant majority of post-secondary enrolments in this country, a stark change from 1971, when 68 per cent of graduates were male. The percentage of female faculty members has also markedly increased since the 1970s. Many of these are eminent feminist scholars who lead projects on wage parity, political engagement, gender identity, body autonomy, and sexual violence. Women are learning, teaching, doing ground-breaking research, and engaging in community service activities on postsecondary campuses across this country. Their social, economic, cultural and political contributions matter; individually and collectively, they are fueling the charge towards gender parity on, and off campus.

Notwithstanding the postsecondary sector’s undeniable contributions to feminism, however, colleges and university campuses have been labelled unsafe. Specifically and most recently, leaders like me have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent sexual violence; for not adequately supporting survivors of sexual violence; and for not holding alleged perpetrators of sexual violence accountable for their behavior. Having invested my entire professional life in the work of fostering human development and student success, this is painful to hear. Personal safety, security and overall wellbeing are foundational to learning. Even one incident of sexual violence on a campus is one too many. The individual and communal impacts can be incalculable. I know because I’ve been a first responder and a primary supporter for too many survivors over my 25 year career as a student services professional. Experience underpins my unwavering commitment to preventing and addressing sexual violence in all its forms: sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism, and/or sexual exploitation. Before and since the latest public call for systematic improvements and increased accountability, stakeholders (students, faculty, and staff) on campuses across the province have worked collegially to draft sound policy, put survivors more squarely at the center of response protocols, and revisit adjudication processes. Perhaps most importantly, we have worked to improve communications so that survivors can make informed decisions that support personal recovery. Every school I have worked at, for example, facilitates academic accommodations, personal counselling, and referrals to community agencies, temporary housing, emergency financial support, and safety planning. We need to be explicit about the help that is available and provide road maps for access. We are listening, learning, and building on existing strengths.

And yet, I am worried that our momentum will stall or that we will self-sabotage by alienating key partners. I also fear that our haste to respond will inadvertently undermine our commitment to being survivor centric

Let me start by saying that we have been talking about this for far too long. In the late 1980s when I was enrolled as an undergraduate at Western University, my sense of self and security was shattered on December 6, 1989 when Marc Lepine shot 28 people and massacred 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. Five months later, an engineering student at Western – Lynda Shaw – was sexually assaulted and murdered at a fast food outlet on Hwy 401. I knew her. I had stopped at that very rest stop dozens of times. Like so many of my privileged peers, I was profoundly and personally impacted by those two atrocities. Our grieving drove us to organize, establish peer networks, and lobby campus administrators. We advocated for education and awareness campaigns, orientation programming, accountability for perpetrators, and survivor-centric supports.

The caution I am sounding is that we have been here before. And yet, the goal is unrealized: the number of students on Ontario campuses who experience sexual violence is still unfathomable. And if they choose to file a formal report, they are often susceptible to having their character and integrity challenged. In this and other regards, universities are a microcosm of broader society wherein violence is glorified and survivors are too often re-traumatized. Most of our students are products of an Ontario secondary school curriculum that – before the recent changes – largely ignored the issue of consent. The magnitude of this challenge is overwhelming. To drive real, sustainable change we must collaborate, demonstrate respect, and ensure that a diversity of voices and lived experiences are heard and acknowledged.

I was at the Premier’s Summit on Sexual Violence in January when a young leader proudly proclaimed that students had been fighting for 30 years to end sexual violence on campuses. Given that most of the students present were not alive in 1986, I took this to be an affirmation of the work that my colleagues and I have done over decades as students, faculty and staff. This message was quickly followed, however, by venomous references to university administrators being singularly focused on revenue generation and reputation. Hurt and insulted, I contemplated pushing myself away from the table. In the end, I concluded that this would be disadvantageous to the cause because my commitment to the issue goes far beyond my professional role as the Vice-Provost, Students at York University.

In the second year of a doctoral program at Bowling Green State University, I started noticing that a man was following me. I would see him outside my classroom, at the gym, and then – over time – outside the window of my apartment. A careful accounting of when and where I saw him provided the impetus for him to plead guilty to Menacing by Stalking; a crime for which he was sentenced to two years in jail.

The path to that outcome – all too rare in instances of sexual violence – was incredibly difficult. For months, I lived in fear and had panic attacks. I am still easily startled and get anxious when my partner travels for work. As is typical, my academic performance, physical health and mental wellbeing suffered. I spent a lot of time questioning what I had done to elicit the criminal attention, and started doubting my personal choices. I felt particularly guilty that my entire family put their lives on hold so they could support me through protection orders, the University’s judicial processes, and a criminal trial. To be clear, I survived being stalked by a man with a violent criminal history because of my parents, my brothers and a few close friends. Key leaders on the campus did their best to help, but there were gaps in policy and support programming that left me vulnerable and undermined my autonomy. Campus Security, for example, decided at some point to move me onto campus so they could better ensure my personal safety. Unfortunately, the only student housing available was a first-year residence dormitory, filled with people 10+ years my junior who partied day and night. I was moved for the right reasons, but the new living environment threatened my already fragile mental health. To allow me to safely return home, my brother and his friend moved to Bowling Green to serve as my bodyguards. Their presence was a constant reminder of how the stalker was undermining my personal power, independence, and freedom. It made me mad.

That anger fueled my resolve to fight back. At the beginning, I had no intention of filing charges; I arrived unannounced at security services one day and an officer named John listened to my disclosure and said he believed me. His obvious priority was my safety, wellbeing and survival. John connected me with campus resources like personal counselling and worked with me on a safety plan. It was several weeks before I decided to pursue the process to have the stalker expelled and charged with a criminal offence.

Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, will amend various statutes with respect to sexual violence, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. It stems from It’s Never OK: an action plan to end sexual violence and harassment, which includes 13 commitments to “establish an Ontario where everyone lives in safety and is free from the threat, fear or experience of sexual violence and harassment”. My colleagues and I applaud the passage of this legislation and are already working to ensure each of our campuses is compliant. Based on my professional and personal experience, however, I am compelled to sound two points of caution. Both relate to the aspirational goals of the government’s plan.

The first speaks to the issue of reporting versus disclosure. Across Ontario, colleges and universities must be empowered to distinguish between a report of sexual violence – which is formal and involves an expectation that action will be taken against an alleged perpetrator – and a disclosure of sexual violence, in confidence, for the express purpose of accessing resources and/or accommodations. A failure to make this distinction may discourage survivors from coming forward because, for example, they are not ready, they do not feel safe, or they fear public shaming, judicial processes and/or police involvement. Legislating or regulating that all disclosures must be treated as formal reports takes control and choice away from the survivor. That’s wrong because it will keep people from accessing the supports they need to recover. I needed time to feel safe and empowered. Had I been rushed or forced into filing a formal report with police, the man who stalked me would likely never have served time for his crime. I appreciate that having quantitative data makes the general public feel like public institutions are being held accountable. The priority, however, must be individual survivors and their recovery.

My second concern relates to accommodations and supports, both of which are keys to survival and recovery. Quite simply, the legislation could require that we count the number of times accommodations or supports have been accessed by any student who has been impacted by sexual violence. I do not think this is a good way to measure the efficacy of our services and I fear that meeting the reporting requirements could threaten personal privacy. Currently, some schools (including York) publicize the number of formal reports filed that relate to sexual violence. If such data was collected and reported using consistent guidelines, it might give prospective and current students a measure by which to judge the ‘relative’ safety of one campus versus another. That number, however, tells only a fraction of the story because so many instances of sexual violence go unreported. To understand the bigger picture, an expert panel convened by the Council of Ontario Universities is recommending that a customized, consistent, confidential climate survey be sent to post-secondary students in Ontario. Carefully designed and implemented, this tool would provide colleges and universities with detailed demographic and student experience data. It would help us understand the real prevalence of sexual violence on our campuses by gathering input from both survivors and perpetrators. Institution-specific questions related to services could be used to guide quality improvement planning. More broadly, the evidence collected via the survey would empower campus leaders (students, faculty and staff) to more effectively drive cultural change.

I rarely speak about my lived experience and this disclosure will come as a surprise to many of my students and colleagues. But today – on International Women’s Day, 2016 – I have decided to use my voice because, quite simply: I do not want to be talking about sexual violence on college and university campuses in five, or 10, or 15 years. I honestly believe that avoiding that reality rests on our capacity to work together and make smart decisions that will drive long-term change.

I am passionate about the transformative power of earning a University degree. This is what fuels my enthusiasm for working at York and supporting the smart, resilient, dynamic students who call our campuses their academic home. Some will wonder how I can advocate so ardently for an environment that exposed me to such emotional trauma. The answer is two-fold. First and foremost: I blame the stalker. He had been on campus less than two months when the behaviour started. Surely, Bowling Green State University cannot be held accountable for his criminality. Second, I firmly believe that I thrived in the wake of sexual violence expressly because I have lived my entire adult life embraced by vibrant, progressive learning communities that are committed to ending the kind of violence that didn’t break me.