University of Toronto: U of T accepts all recommendations of sexual violence and sexual harassment policy review

The University of Toronto is taking steps to boost its supports for those affected by sexual violence or harassment, address barriers to reporting and take a leadership role within the university sector to address sexual violence and sexual harassment in academia.

The changes respond to recommendations made in the final report of U of T’s sexual violence and sexual harassment policy review, which was released Friday. The university has indicated in its response to the report that it has accepted all 12 of the report’s recommendations and will begin to implement them immediately.

Co-chaired by Professor Linda Johnston, dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, and Allison Burgess, director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office, the review involved extensive consultation with students, staff, faculty and librarians over the course of almost half a year.

“In our conversations and consultations, we heard a great deal of appreciation for the work that is both historic and ongoing in the area of sexual harassment and sexual violence,” says Johnston. “We also heard frustrations and calls for the university to do better when it comes to fostering a culture of consent, accountability and respect.”

Burgess adds that the review’s call to action aligns with U of T’s mission to foster an academic community in which every member may thrive.

“The recommendations outlined in the report are offered with the sincere hope that the university can enhance those supports, improve processes and policies, and build a community of care on our campuses,” Burgess adds. “We have an institutional obligation to ensure that members of our community affected by sexual violence and harassment receive necessary supports so that they, too, may flourish.”

Carried out every three years, the review looks for ways to improve the current Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment and strengthen supports and services. As part of this year’s review, the co-chairs facilitated a total of 54 consultation sessions across the three campuses. They also received responses through an online form and formal submissions from student groups.

President Meric Gertler says he is grateful to those who participated in the review process and shared their experiences.

“U of T is committed to building the best systems and practices to protect all members of our community from sexual violence and sexual harassment, to support survivors and ensure that the university is safe for learning, research and other activities,” he says.

“I commend the authors of the final report for their clear and thorough discussion of complex and challenging issues. I look forward to seeing their important recommendations implemented across the university’s three campuses.”

While many of the recommendations will be enacted swiftly, others will require appropriate consultation and thoughtful planning.

To help co-ordinate and manage the various aspects of the reporting process under the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, the university will prioritize hiring new case managers. These case managers will be responsible for taking reports, tracking the progress of reports through the process, and communicating relevant university decisions to participants. This will allow the staff at the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support (SVPS) Centre responsible for supporting survivors to better focus on trauma-informed support and will also assist the university with its commitment to moving reports through in a timely manner.

The university will also increase counselling supports in partnership with U of T’s existing Health & Wellness offices, as well as community-based organizations that offer longer-term, culturally specific and after-hours counselling and support.

Meanwhile, the Student’s Guide to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment will be simplified to increase its clarity and ease of use, and a companion guide will be created for faculty, librarians and staff.

Steps have also been taken to broaden education on sexual violence and sexual harassment, a common theme found throughout the report. The SVPS centre recently hired an assistant director of education and communication who will oversee the centre’s tri-campus educational curriculum.

“We are continuously looking for ways to improve our policies, reduce barriers to reporting and strengthen our supports,” says Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost. “The actions we are taking on these recommendations reflect our ongoing commitment to prevent sexual violence and promote a culture where any member from our community who has experienced sexual violence or harassment feels safe and supported sharing their experiences.”

To increase institutional accountability, the university will provide more detailed annual reporting on sexual violence and sexual harassment beginning next year. The reporting will be readily accessible to the public but will still protect the privacy of all those involved.

“I’d like to thank all the members across the tri-campus community who provided feedback during this process,” says Kelly Hannah-Moffat, vice-president of people strategy, equity and culture. “It can be incredibly challenging to engage in these discussions.

“I can see how your participation and insights have enriched the recommendations thoughtfully proposed by the co-chairs. Based on the recommendations of the review, we will continue to improve not only our processes but also how we educate and train our community about sexual violence prevention and supports.”

The university is also establishing guidelines and processes to share information with other institutions to help address sexual violence and harassment within academia.

In 2021, U of T signed on to the principles of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which recommend that, when considering whether to hire a faculty member, institutions contact prior employers to determine if the faculty member has been found to have engaged in sexual harassment or misconduct while at that institution. The university is committed to developing processes to implement this recommendation in the 2022-23 academic year.

U of T will also bring the AAU recommendation forward to various post-secondary organizations with which it is affiliated and will consult with international groups and peer institutions about how to expand the recommendation more broadly within the sector.

Work has already begun on new policy language in line with those changes recommended in the report. All proposed changes to the policy will go through U of T’s governance process this November and December. Members of the community will have an opportunity to provide additional feedback in September and October via the university’s consultation website.