One of the worst-kept secrets in academia is that students, and particularly graduate students, can be subject to the whims of people in power who don’t always take their sacred trust as seriously as they ought to. Sometimes, the ramifications are relatively frivolous: a cruel word you eventually shake off; a night at the pub that you wish you didn’t remember; an embarrassing reference in a publication. Sometimes, the ramifications are far more serious: a spiteful letter that sinks your chance at a fellowship or job; an untrue rumour that damages your credibility in the department or beyond.
And sometimes, students are sexually assaulted by their professors.
The world of Canadian literature has been grappling with a scandal in the Creative Writing department at the University of British Columbia involving Steven Galloway, a number of complainants, and many of the country’s most powerful literary figures. Marsha Lederman’s piece in the Globe and Mail outlines the major accusations, which range from bullying to sexual harassment to sexual assault, and the result: Galloway has been fired, though his union is appealing the decision following the processes outlined in the collective agreement. There is a great deal of questioning going on about the process; as with Title 9-based discrimination complaints in the US, this has been dealt with internally to the university and not by police or courts. The independent report produced about the situation was so heavily redacted as to be, effectively, meaningless. And the university has resisted transparency at every step.
This week, however, the whole thing blew up again with the emergence of #UBCAccountable, an open letter written by the most famous writers in Canada demanding a better process — for Steven Galloway. Writers like Margaret Atwood (yes, that Margaret Atwood, your erstwhile feminist hero Margaret Atwood), Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Boyden, and many others signed their names to a letter titled “Fairness for Writer Steven Galloway,” which focuses on the impact of the firing and slow appeals process on Galloway, but makes almost no mention of the complainants until the eighth paragraph, with the throwaway line: “We, the undersigned, respect the principle of protection for individuals who wish to bring complaints.” In the “Learn More” section on the site, they do not outline the complaints or even link to news articles that allowed the complainants a voice. The only focus of the concern here is Steven Galloway.
The letter broke my heart.
Can you imagine being one of the complainants — a Creative Writing student in the small literary scene that is Canada, hoping to one day be published alongside these brilliant writers — and to find that your heroes had signed their names to a letter that claimed to be about process but never engaged with the idea that you, too, had been harmed? It’s worth noting here that UBC has been criticized roundly for its handling of sexual assault issues across campus for quite some time, even convening an expert panel to draw up a report assessing how to deal with it. And yet, this group of #UBCAccountable writers makes no reference to the work of those experts at all. (Lucia Lorenzi, one of the expert panelists, has storified her thoughts on this situation here. She is much smarter than me and her words are worth your time. She also links out to other crucial information ignored by the letter writers, including an in-process Human Rights Complaint that overlaps with these issues.)
The signatories of that letter have a tremendous amount of cultural power, and they are using it not to support complainants but to silence them. Many of the signatories also teach in universities — what message does such a signature send to their own students who are very possibly dealing with abuses of power in their own departments? I teach Canadian literature for a living. I think of my own students and all they wrestle with everyday. My job, at least in part, is to show them how literature has the power to help them navigate the traumas of their lives and make sense of moments of cruelty and pain. What do we do when those very same writers so publicly reinforce the idea that they won’t be heard should they find a voice with which to speak?
Most everyone on the sidelines of this conversation is ignorant: we don’t really know what happened. We know one side or the other, we know whispers and reputation, we know pieces and we know moments. But when we decide that not having the whole picture means we need to stand up for process, that stand has to be genuine and the process has to be for everyone involved. The #UBCAccountable letter takes a very public side for Steven Galloway and against the complainants. And that, too, is a violation of a deeply scared trust.
Not everyone stands with Galloway. I was pleased to see one of my own writerly heroes, Lawrence Hill, pen an op-ed for the Globe and Mail that asserted that he didn’t sign the letter because he believed it was an act intended to silence complainants. Some writers have backed away and removed their signatures from the letter once made aware of the tone it takes, like Wayne Johnston. A group of Canadian literature professors have written a letter in response, offering support to complainants and upholding the role of the professor. And most beautifully, non-signatory established writers have been using their words to support the complainants and demand better of their colleagues, in particular with Room Magazine’s No Comment project.
UBC should be held accountable — but not only to Steven Galloway. Steven Galloway, too, should be held accountable. And all of Canadian Literature must be held accountable for the choices made in this fraught, exhausting week.
My heart is broken. The way to heal it is to stand up for complainants and demand better of my colleagues and my corner of the world. With this article, I hold myself accountable. Our students deserve at least this much.