GSS Responds to Concerns over Advocating for UBC Graduate Students on the Matter of Sexual Violence

on February 9, 2016
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Dear UBC Graduate Students,

Many of you have likely heard about a report Strengthening Accountability Surrounding Issues of Sexual Violence and the allegations that the Graduate Student Society (GSS) and myself, in particular, have attempted to bury this report. I would like to address some of the concerns that have been raised over the last few days below.

But before I do so I would first like to take this opportunity to apologize to all graduate students I have disappointed with my approach of this issue. In my attempt to do due diligence and follow the proper protocols in place after I received the final report on Monday, February 15, 2016, I have failed to pick up on the escalating sense of urgency within parts of the graduate student community, and have not prioritized the review of the report sufficiently.

Furthermore, I have failed to appropriately communicate the steps being taken by the GSS with respect to the report and how it was meant to fit into the overall strategy of the organization to address sexual violence at UBC. I am deeply sorry about my contributions to your sense of institutional betrayal, but I hope it will not distract you from the efforts being undertaken by other members of your GSS.

I would like to continue these conversations with all involved parties and wish to attempt to rebuild the trust people have lost in me, and the GSS by extension. Please find below a few of the initiatives undertaken by a wide range of knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and committed GSS members.

When the current executive team took office in May 2015 we quickly identified the need to find solutions to address harassment and discrimination at UBC, including sexual assault, as one of the major projects for the year. A project spanning multiple, if not all, portfolios within the Executive. We have therefore decided to take a multifaceted approach.

During the summer a GSS Ad Hoc Committee on Harassment and Discrimination was struck with a threefold purpose. Firstly to collect data on harassment and discrimination issues graduate students are facing at UBC and to learn more about the gaps in existing procedures.

Secondly to research best practices across Canada, the States and beyond in dealing with sexual violence and other forms of harassment and discrimination and how they can be applied to the UBC context.

Lastly the committee will use data and research to bring forth policy suggestions both for internal GSS processes as well as to strengthen our advocacy efforts with UBC, all levels of government, and stakeholder groups.

The committee has since studied several processes at other universities to learn from both successes and failures alike. In the fall the digital portal mygradstory.ca went live to help with narrative data collection. Climate surveys are currently under development to deepen our understanding of the situation of graduate students at UBC.

Furthermore, together with our provincial and federal partners, in the Alliance of BC Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, respectively, we have been advocating to government and other stakeholder groups, like Universities Canada, to appropriately address matters of sexual violence on campuses on a larger scale.

Crisis management, although very important to appropriately support survivors, is only part of the approach the GSS has been taking; we deem intervention and prevention programs as just as important to address the matter holistically. On November 2nd, we met with Janet Mee (Director, Access and Diversity) and CJ Rowe (Diversity Advisor, Sexual Assault Intervention and Prevention) to seek their support for the creation of a “grad2grad” active bystander training programs via train-the-trainer approaches as well as community service learning programs that would provide graduate students an opportunity to mentor and to educate younger students in the community on matters of consent.

This endeavour was met with enthusiasm and on February 10th, the GSS Commissioners for Experiential Learning and Mentorship, and Indigenous Affairs joined me in a meeting with CJ Rowe to begin tactical planning for execution of the program. As a result of this meeting, the GSS is actively seeking UBC graduate students to volunteer for these important programs. (Volunteers can register now at president@gss.ubc.ca)

We hope that these measures will help to reduce the incidences of harassment and discrimination, and particularly sexual violence, at UBC and the larger community.

There are multiple other ongoing projects that at least touch on some of the issues arising from harassment and discrimination or its prevention in some capacity, albeit maybe not quite as directly as the ones mentioned above.

We are, in collaboration with the CUPE2278, looking into more extensive TA training after researching TA training conducted at twenty leading North American universities. Additionally, the GSS is exploring the development of new mentorship and experiential learning opportunities for graduate students. We created additional roles within the organization to address matters of equity, well-being, and indigenous affairs more appropriately, knowledgeable, and efficiently. Moreover, we are looking towards additions to Graduate Student Orientation to further improve the transition into graduate school, including but not limited to workshops like “working and studying in the Canadian context” for international students who often face the additional challenge of adapting to a different cultural environment.

The report is but one of the pieces in our overall efforts to address sexual violence and enhance graduate student life at UBC. The GSS Executive has consistently and strongly communicated in statements to the press and in meetings with senior university administrators that graduate students are uniquely vulnerable to harassment and discrimination and sexual violence on campus due to their dependence on decisions made by their faculty advisors regarding the research funding they receive as well as the assessment of their academic progress.

While the GSS is excited and encouraged by new collaborative ventures with the University mentioned above, we are still facing some level of resistance on some fronts. In meetings with President Martha Piper and VP Students Louise Cowin we have encountered doubts and disbelief regarding the unique vulnerability of graduate students.

It is our hope that the data gathered through the creation of the report as well as mygradstory.ca will strengthen our position in convincing the UBC Administration that a “one size fits all” approach on the matter of sexual assault will fail to appropriately address the issue from a graduate student perspective.

As GSS President I wish to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to advocating on behalf of UBC’s graduate students on issues of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination and help them in their struggles to navigate processes and available resources.

Regards,

Tobias Friedel, President
Graduate Student Society – UBC Vancouver
president@gss.ubc.ca

 


 

Response from Louise Cowin, Vice-President, Students, UBC

Note: the views expressed in this message do not necessarily reflect the views of the Graduate Student Society, UBC – Vancouver.

Re. GSS Responds to Concerns over Advocating for UBC Graduate Students on the Matter of Sexual Violence

UBC recognizes the importance of dialogue and discussion around the issue of sexual assault and I want to commend the Graduate Student Society for playing an advocacy role. However, I do want to clarify a misperception in your recent statement dated Feb. 19.

The senior leaders at UBC, including myself and Interim President Martha Piper, are highly sensitive to the vulnerabilities of different constituencies across campus, including those of graduate students. Graduate students are potentially vulnerable in unique ways because of the power dynamics associated with working closely with supervisors, and in their capacity as teaching assistants, but they are not uniquely vulnerable. Many other students face different but equally challenging situations that could put them at risk.

We are not advocating a one-size-fits-all approach to sexual assault. On the contrary, we are currently engaged in a campus-wide consultation process, working in partnership with students, staff, faculty and other campus partners to improve our sexual assault policies, protocols, and programs with the goal of addressing the needs of all. Together, we have an opportunity to work collaboratively to provide a safe, respectful campus community, and I look forward to continuing dialogue with the Graduate Student Society.

Sincerely,

Louise Cowin,
Vice-President, Students

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GSS Responds to Concerns over Advocating for UBC Graduate Students on the Matter of Sexual Violence