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Margin Notes

Campus sexual assault the newsmaker of 2014

Accusations, allegations and recriminations filled media reports throughout the year.


There were many important, newsworthy events at Canadian universities in 2014 in areas such as innovation, research, university management, finances and government funding. Alas, the biggest news story this year, pushing other events to the sidelines, was undoubtedly campus sexual assault.

It was also a major issue in the United States in 2014, and news south of the border often influences our own reporting here. But, this was not a copycat situation – Canada had its own precipitating event with the “rape chants” in the fall of 2013 at St. Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia. As we reported in our own story this year at University Affairs on university efforts to combat campus sexual assault, barely had the fallout from those chants died down when other events arose to feed the narrative. Among these were allegations that surfaced this past January of a sexual assault by members of the University of Ottawa’s hockey team. U of Ottawa president Alan Rock suspended the men’s hockey program in response, generating several weeks’ more controversy on whether the action was warranted or an overreaction. Later, at McGill University, a football player was charged with assault and the university’s response prompted the coach to resign in a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations.

There were other ugly events, such as sexually graphic emails targeting the student council president of U of Ottawa, prompting her to declare that “rape culture is very present on our campuses.” And just last month, tensions reigned at Université du Québec à Montréal after some students, on social media, accused professors of sexual harassment and pasted accusatory messages on the professors’ office doors.

(Added Dec. 17, 8:30 a.m.: As I was writing this yesterday, as if on cue, another bit of ugliness surfaced involving terribly misogynistic comments posted by some Dalhousie University dentistry students on a Facebook page. Accusations and recriminations abound.)

Earlier this year, during the summer months as orientation-week activities loomed, many universities announced measures to tone down frosh events and raise awareness of sexual assault through various initiatives. Among these was University of Windsor’s bystander intervention program, which received numerous mentions as a best practice to follow. Still, questionable chants at Université Laval and facilitators at Carleton University wearing shirts proclaiming “F*** Safe Space” angered many people.

Then, before things could quieten down, the Toronto Star published an investigation in November in which it polled more than 100 universities and colleges in Canada and reportedly found just nine that had adopted a special policy to address sexual assault. This was followed up by the Star with reports of universities pledging to do better.

In the U.S., which we often regard as “10 times the size” of Canada, the reporting on campus sexual assault indeed seemed to be 10 times as voluminous. Look at the two major higher-education trade publications in the U.S. – the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed – and nary a week went by this year without this issue being covered, often extensively.

Among the events fuelling this reporting was the release of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (PDF) in April and the signing by California Governor Jerry Brown of a bill in September that requires colleges and universities in the state to adopt controversial anti-sexual-assault policies that “radically rewrite” what constitutes consent. Under the new law, the standard for consent to sexual activity in campus judicial hearings shifts from whether or not a person said “no” to whether both partners said “yes.” This has prompted colleges in other states to adopt the new, so-called “yes means yes” standard.

Finally, like a giant exclamation point to punctuate the avalanche of bad news, Rolling Stone magazine published in November its now infamous report of a brutal gang-rape on the University of Virginia campus. The allegations rocked the university, forcing its president Teresa A. Sullivan to vow that she would marshal “all available resources to assist our students who confront issues related to sexual misconduct.” But, just as soon as the uproar began, the magazine had to make a series of embarrassing retractions regarding the story, creating more controversy and recrimination.

The issue has gained resonance in the media – and society in general – because of other allegations of sexual assault that have surfaced this year in other spheres. These include, notably, allegations against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi here in Canada and those against comedian Bill Cosby in the U.S., thus adding fuel to the debate.

I have read numerous times that sexual assault remains an issue on campus precisely because it remains in issue in society at large. (Interestingly, a recent study on sexual assault by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that college students actually had a lower chance of being sexually assaulted than non-students of college age.) Nonetheless, I thought it was quite poignant that our contributor Rosanna Tamburri, in a guest blog post on advice to her daughter about staying safe on campus, admitted that, other than telling her to lock her residence room door at night and know her limit when drinking, she was “at a loss” on what to say.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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