The University of British Columbia plans to introduce a standalone sexual-assault and misconduct policy and establish a centre to support assault survivors, the latest Canadian postsecondary institution to respond to persistent calls for the education sector to address such incidents on campus.
Under the new policy, an independent investigator would be responsible for examining allegations of assault or misconduct, rather than a tribunal of trained students, as can be the case under UBC's existing procedures. It is one among several new measures contained in an extensively revised draft of the university's sexual-assault policy, which is up for discussion at this Tuesday's board of governors meeting.
"Universities have been responsible for sexual assault ever since there have been harassment and discrimination procedures in institutions," said Sara-Jane Finlay, UBC's associate vice-president of equity and inclusion. "So this is not something new, but the focus and level of discourse on university campuses is much higher and I think that's a good thing."
Like other B.C. universities, UBC has been mandated by the province to have a standalone sexual-assault policy in place by May. Ontario and Manitoba have passed similar bills and Alberta and Nova Scotia have directed universities to introduce such guidelines. It's part of a national recognition that sexual-assault survivors need options outside the criminal-justice system. A Globe and Mail investigation into how local police forces classify sexual-assault allegations has revealed vast differences in how cases are addressed across the country.
"Administrative processes which are available in an institution are not like a criminal process," Ms. Finlay said. "You don't go through the same kind of experience that you go through in a criminal process, and yet it still allows people to seek some form of justice and resolution when they have been sexually assaulted."
UBC's guidelines also include timelines on how a complaint is to be handled and the creation of a Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office. That office would help students receive academic accommodations like extensions on term papers, even if the student decided they simply wanted to disclose an incident but not pursue an investigation.
All are key recommendations made by an independent panel earlier this summer. The panel was struck in response to allegations that complaints of assault made by graduate students in the history department were mishandled and continuing controversy in the case of author Steven Galloway, who was fired as chair of UBC's creative-writing department.
Some of the measures, such as an independent investigator, are also practised at Ryerson University, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Victoria.
But UBC's experience developing the new guidelines also shows the challenges of designing a policy with more ambitious goals than those of a criminal proceeding, from identifying repeat offenders to educating the campus community. Getting it right is like balancing on a "knife's edge," wrote Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen in an essay in The New Yorker about the experience of American universities in this area.
"We are at a crossroads because the systems we've put in place to try and hold perpetrators accountable and to respond to survivors' very real trauma have failed," said Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, the communications co-ordinator of METRAC, a non-profit Toronto-based group that advocates for policies to prevent violence against women and children.
METRAC is developing a policy-assessment tool that can be used to analyze how well university regulations will meet survivor needs. Those elements include clear differences between disclosure and reporting, a statement of principles and definitions of assault or misconduct that have been established through wide consultations.
In fact, any university policy is only as good as the conversations that precede the final policy documents, Ms. Ross-Marquette said.
"You have to look at how it was developed in the first place to see if the policy is going to be useful and robust," she said. "It is best practice to have your campus stakeholders engaged. That is also going to help when you roll out the policy. [Then] people feel consulted, they feel invested and they feel that their experiences were taken into account."
At UBC, formal consultations were extended early this fall after the independent panel appointed by former president Martha Piper said that its report, which heard from over 50 people and received 40 e-mails, deserved to be widely discussed.
Lucia Lorenzi, a member of that panel and PhD graduate, said she was not consulted on the second draft of the university's guidelines. In the document setting out the new policy, UBC states that it received approximately 160 submissions.
"I feel like I have a right to comment, because I have a responsibility to the people we consulted to make sure that the policies reflect what we heard directly," she said.
Other advocates were skeptical of measures in the guidelines that suggest complaints could be resolved through an "alternative resolution process" which would bring survivors and alleged perpetrators together.
"What situation is it when there is sexual assault where [mediation] is appropriate? I can't think of one," said Glynnis Kirchmeier, a former UBC graduate student who has brought a human-rights case against the university for how it handled allegations against a PhD student.
The new policy will be up for discussion for another four-week period before the board of governors decides whether to adopt it.