McMaster students ‘ask for change’ from university over concerns from sexual assault investigations

Both McMaster University and Mohawk College are targeting returns to full in-person learning somewhere around the beginning of February. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

Over 100 grad students from McMaster University’s psychology, neuroscience and behaviour (PNB) department are calling on the university to do more to address sexual assault allegations, including the firing of a professor who’s been charged with sexual assault.

In an undated, open letter to the university’s president and board of governors, current and former graduate students are asking for more transparency with recent sexual assault investigations in the PNB department, a commitment to eliminate harassment, and full dismissal of the prof charged with sexual assault by Hamilton police in June 2020.

“As PNB students, we feel extremely disappointed by McMaster’s response in regard to ensuring student safety,” the students wrote in the letter.

“Despite the numerous sexual assault allegations, which are likely underreported, along with enough evidence that two staff members were formally charged, McMaster University continues to be dismissive of the gravity and seriousness of the issue by not holding perpetrators accountable and by failing to create and implement a plan to protect students sufficiently moving forward.”

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On Thursday, McMaster’s president David Farrar updated an investigation involving the school and an independent firm.

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Farrar revealed violations of McMaster’s sexual violence policy in one instance and said other cases being probed “were not substantiated and policies were not violated.”

“Where appropriate, interim measures have been removed and individuals are being reintegrated into the University community,” Farrar said in his statement.

“One investigation found violations of the sexual violence policy, and I want to assure you that action commensurate with those findings will be taken.”

The university’s PNB department underwent a systematic review in 2020 facilitated by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP after Hamilton police charged associate professor Scott Watter in connection with allegations involving an adult female student in 2017. He’s scheduled to appear in court this August.

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McMaster released a statement in December 2020 on the findings which revealed a culture that “created a degree of complacency” that let “inappropriate behaviours go unchecked.”

The review recommended a series of actions to ensure students, faculty and staff in the PNB department “have a clear understanding of the need for change.”

Over 100 people — including faculty, staff, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and some PNB undergraduates and alumni — participated in the review.

The open letter suggests that “inherent power dynamics” between students and the university’s policies, systems, and structures place students in a “vulnerable position” with fear of potential “academic, career, and social consequences” for speaking out.

“Our hope in bringing these concerns forward is to not only ask for change within the department of PNB and McMaster University, but to also offer our support to the survivors, amplify their voices, and de-stigmatize the culture of silence associated with sexual violence,” said the students.

Global News reached out McMaster University for comment on the open letter. The school did not issue a statement in response.

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