UBC Students Aren’t Happy About a Canlit Star’s Defence of Fired Prof Accused of Sex Assault

Governor General's Literary Award winner Madeleine Thien has defended her friend Steven Galloway, accused of sexual assault. An open letter to Thien shows how closely students are listening.

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Nov 2 2016, 8:43pm

Madeleine Thien defended her friend Steven Galloway last month. Photo via Simon Fraser University

Students are closely watching the University of British Columbia's handling of sex assault allegations, and an open letter circulating on social media today suggests many are not happy with what they see.

In public debate so far, virtually nobody seems to support the results of an investigation into fired creative writing department chair Steven Galloway—not the complainants, not the accused, not the Canadian literary community, and increasingly, not the wider public.

A retired Supreme Court judge ultimately found the primary allegation of the main complainant could not be substantiated. Those details are redacted in a 44-page report. But since Galloway was fired, and details that led to that firing are protected by non-disclosure, rumour and speculation continues to cloud the conversation—in some cases violating complainants' privacy.

Governor General's Literary Award winner Madeleine Thien made her frustrations known last month in a letter asking the university to remove any mention of her from school publications, citing the damage done to her friend Galloway's reputation. She wrote that the case should have been handed over to police, not handled in house behind closed doors, and that the university failed everyone involved.

"Unsubstantiated allegations, slander, whisper campaigns, and misrepresentations of allegations are not the domain of the law or of justice," it reads. "As a survivor of sexual assault, I do not take the law lightly... We cannot rely on institutions, including UBC, whose primary interests are self-serving, and who have never been invested with the obligation to uphold justice."

That letter, which also publishes snippets of unredacted complainant details, became the centre of a Globe and Mail story that laid out all the controversy and damage done to the people and creative writing program so far. Now one student's response to Thien looks at the case from a new lens, directing attention to the failings of both police and academic institutions on sex assault.

Identifying herself as "a fellow Chinese Canadian woman writer" and "current student at UBC," the anonymous student addresses the Canlit star's concerns point-by-point. On social media, former students commended the student for attempting to bridge a conflict that has caused a considerable amount of pain and confusion.

"To be clear I completely support you in having your name removed from all things related to UBC," reads the letter. "I would want to remove my name too. I also want to honour your vulnerability in sharing your experience of sexual assault in your letter."

The student agrees the university failed miserably, but questions why Thien jumped to the accused's defence, when systemic inequality already favours people like Galloway.

"To be completely honest, I find it difficult to honour how you deploy survivorship on your letter to bolster your defence and thus invalidate the testimony of the complainants of this situation," she wrote. "Let's be clear that, while Galloway's mental health is not negligible, centring his at the expense of those he has harmed favours patriarchy."

The student then writes police investigation into sexual assault also tends to fail women, and could result in similar pain and controversy. "Going to the police, as you advise, is usually not an option," it reads. "Sexual violence exists on a spectrum and the Canadian legal system has not been reliable in holding perpetrators (of all kinds of violence) accountable."

Though the open letter comes from an outsider's perspective—she states she was not part of the creative writing program or investigation—it suggests that students across campus are listening and well versed in the case, and want to discuss assault on campus. With consultations for a new sex assault policy still ongoing, there is at least a forum for perspectives outside the media.

Finally, the student asks the Canadian literary community to do better to speak up for victims, and address inequality. "As a reader of your work I hope that you will consider the enormous power you hold as an internationally-recognized author when making such statements."

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