VANCOUVER — The University of British Columbia seems more concerned about handling a public relations crisis than taking meaningful action to help women feel safe after multiple allegations of sexual assault, says a complainant.
Glynnis Kirchmeier, who is planning to launch a human-rights case against UBC, published an open letter to the university’s interim president on Tuesday.
In the letter, the former student questions why Martha Piper issued a public apology but didn’t directly contact her or other students who made complaints.
“I was surprised to learn on Sunday that you had issued an apology to ‘the women in these cases who feel they have been let down by our university,”‘ she wrote.
“Did you mean to include me? I did not receive a personal communication from you, though you could have asked associate VP Dr. Sara-Jane Finlay for my email and phone number.”
She and other former and current students held a news conference Sunday, when Kirchmeier announced her plans to file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. The women said the university lacks a clear policy for handling sexual assault reports and that it took a year and a half to act on six complaints about a PhD student.
Kirchmeier was not assaulted by the student but said she witnessed his behaviour and reported it to the university in January 2014. She said UBC failed to act on complaints by her and others until last week, when it said the student was no longer at the university.
Piper’s apology, issued Saturday, acknowledged the process took too long and pledged to begin a discussion with students, faculty and staff on a new sexual assault policy.
In her letter, Kirchmeier said Piper could release documents that she has requested under freedom of information legislation on the university’s sexual harassment and assault policies.
Piper did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
UBC currently relies on a discrimination and harassment policy to respond to sexual assault allegations. It sets out a general process for handling complaints, but does not include specifics about sexual assault complaints.
According to a report to the board of governors, the Equity and Inclusion Office received 273 complaints between September 2013 and August 2015, and 69 of them were related to sex, a broad definition that includes harassment, stalking, pregnancy and the hiring of women.
Just six of the 273 complaints were referred for a formal investigation.
Former graduate student Caitlin Cunningham told Sunday’s news conference that she chose not to report her alleged sexual assault to police after speaking with university administrators in July 2014 because she was reassured the school “would handle it.”
“Honestly, I had no idea what to do,” she said. “I turned to the people I thought could help me. I turned to the university for guidance and they assured me they could and would help me. But this has proved for the most part to be untrue.”
Cunningham said she would have filed a police report had the university suggested that was her best course of action, adding the process remains unclear to her.
“I don’t know if they make it up as they go,” she said.
Finlay, associate vice-president of equity and inclusion at UBC, said the university provides sexual-assault complainants with extensive information and resources and always encourages them to contact police.
“There is nothing that precludes them from going to the RCMP,” she said.
When asked whether sexual assault is an issue on campus at UBC, Finlay said: “Sexual assault is an issue that is concerning to all universities across Canada.”
University spokeswoman Susan Danard said in an email that the school does not generally share reports of sexual assault directly with police.
“UBC respects the right of survivors of sexual assault to decide who they share information about the assault with,” Danard said.
Universities become part of the problem if they fail to support women who come to them with reports of sexual assault, said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre.
“If institutions are not responding effectively then they are perpetuating violence against women,” she said, singling out UBC.
“That kind of response is absolutely making a mockery out of the seriousness of sexual assault.”