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Symposium at UQAM shines light on romantic relationships between professors and students

Scheduled event took place days after three profs were denounced for sexual harassment.


Love affairs between teachers and students are as old as time. They are fodder for books, films and TV series — and the university rumour mill.

“Everyone knows it happens, but no one talks about it,” said Martine Delvaux, a professor in the literary studies department at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). “And when we do talk about it, it’s to point to couples that have worked out. That way we avoid talking about all the other scenarios, which are much more common, with issues that are more complicated, desperate and, frankly, shameful.”

For Dr. Delvaux, these often dangerous liaisons are “ticking time bombs.” And to prevent them from exploding and hurting people, she and students Valérie Lebrun and Laurence Pelletier organized the symposium “Sex, love and power: Once upon a time at the university…,” which took place in mid-November at UQAM. The goal was to calmly lift the veil on the issue through works of literature and cultural analyses. Speakers included professors and students from six Quebec universities.

But in the lead-up to the symposium, plenty of bombs went off: the Jian Ghomeshi affair at CBC, accusations of sexual harassment in Parliament, and a wave of denunciations of sexual assaults on Twitter. The symposium, which was initially seen as a fairly private campus event, found itself in the eye of the storm, and organizers had to book a larger room. To further complicate matters, a few days before the event three UQAM professors had their office doors decorated with stickers denouncing the culture of rape and sexual harassment. Photos of wrongdoing and the names of professors then started circulating on Facebook.

Against this backdrop, participants’ expectations were high. More than 100 people showed up (only a few of them men), with some people sitting on the floor. Ms. Pelletier, one of the students, tried to set the tone for the meeting: “We are not here to denounce or accuse,” she read out. “While the issue of harassment is central to this symposium, we want to look at the foundations of the power relationships between professors and students that underlie it.”

What consent?

Many people argue that relationships between professors and students are relationships between consenting adults, who have all attained the age of majority. “But what constitutes consent at a university?” asked Dr. Delvaux during the symposium. Even though young women have technically reached the age of majority, they are still under their professor’s authority. “In a way, the professors are the stars of their department or discipline,” she said. “They have to be aware of their power and appeal.”

How does a student stand up to the person who supervises her research, hires her as a research assistant, gives her a bursary or signs a letter of recommendation? “The risks of abuse of power and trust, as well as conflict of interest, are there.”

If things go wrong, it’s often the student who loses out, Dr. Delvaux added. The student is the one who, to cope, will have to drop out of school, change universities or continue her career as the object of malicious gossip. “She has lost her power of speech. No matter what she says, she will be accused of having wanted to seduce her professor or of having been naïve enough to be seduced.”

Power reversal

The symposium was designed as a forum for reflection, but several participants, spurred by the wave of assault accusations, were eager for action and a solution that reaches beyond the university walls.

“What do we do about all these women who are living with the scars of harassment and assault and who have nowhere to talk about it – how can we improve the legal system?” one participant asked.

These kinds of questions were impossible for panelists to answer, but Dr. Delvaux did say that UQAM is currently reviewing its harassment policy and the complaints handling process. She is a member of the committee looking at the issue, which will also study professional responsibility to prevent abuse. “It’s a long-term effort,” she said.

Isabelle Boisclair, a professor in Université de Sherbrooke’s department of literature and communication, said she is convinced that the symposium and the events that preceded it will have a lasting impact on universities. “There will be a reversal of power: students will be able to walk away from the trap laid for them by professors, and professors will not have the same freedom as before, knowing that they can be denounced on social networks even if they are not directly named.”

Female students may also show more solidarity, as demonstrated by the creation of the Student Collective Against Sexism in Literary Studies at UQAM, officially launched at the symposium. “Students who are victims of harassment or assault feel isolated and are afraid to file a complaint,” said Iraïs Landry, a founding member. “We want to encourage them to do so by offering to act as mediators. We also hope to encourage universities to fight pervading sexism. We can change things if we stick together.”

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