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U of T’s music program fosters culture of sexual harassment and fear, students, faculty claim

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Students, faculty, staff and alumni are demanding that the University of Toronto address what they say is a toxic culture within the faculty of music that allows sexual harassment and other misconduct to continue unchecked.

In open letters published online, those connected to the school also say the issues include harassment, racism, discrimination and censorship and that many were fearful to speak up until now.

At the end of last month, a group of students put up a “clothesline” installation on campus meant to air the school’s “dirty laundry.” Messages were hung up on coloured paper, including experiences of sexual harassment within the faculty of music.

Faculty members, students and unions have sent several letters to the school’s administration expressing concern over the way it’s been handling complaints.

“We absolutely need change … because this has been going on for decades. Enough is enough,” said Ness Wong, president of the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association (FMUA).

“For change to happen at such a high level at an institutional level, we need to work together.”

U of T's music program fosters culture of sexual harassment and fear, students, faculty claim
One of the messages to the university hangs on a ‘clothesline’ installed on the campus. It’s part of an effort to get the school to address what critics say is a toxic culture at the faculty of music. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Students, faculty, instructors and alumni who spoke to CBC News describe an environment where predators are protected, the complaint process harms victims and systemic misconduct goes unaddressed. They say power dynamics lead to fear of speaking out or censorship. The open letters were sent after allegations of sexual harassment were brought to light on social media in the spring.

The allegations have not been substantiated.

In a statement, a spokesperson for U of T said the university is working with the faculty of music to address the issues. While the university didn’t directly respond to claims about protecting perpetrators, it said that due to privacy obligations and the nature of some allegations, it isn’t able to discuss specifics.

Letter details dozens of sexual harassment claims

FMUA first circulated an open letter in May calling on the faculty of music to address “historic and ongoing misogyny and systemic inequalities which have once again been brought to light.”

The letter now has nearly 1,000 signatures and includes more than 50 stories of sexual assault or harassment at the music school — some current and some dating back to the 1970s, Wong said.

“It hurts to read those stories. It’s horrendous,” she told CBC News. “You wish it never happened. But you’re also not surprised because this has been a problem for ages.”

Other signatories outline instances of racism, bullying and other misconduct and how the experiences had an impact on their personal and professional lives and studies.

U of T's music program fosters culture of sexual harassment and fear, students, faculty claim
Ness Wong, president of the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association, says while it’s painful to read the allegations, ‘you’re also not surprised because this has been a problem for ages.’ (Submitted by Ness Wong)

The letter says it’s initially asking the university to:

  • Take concrete actions to ensure students are safe.
  • Launch an external review into the environment of misogyny, fear of speaking out against sexual misconduct and abuse of power.
  • Implement mandatory consent training for students, faculty and staff.
  • Add an in-house equity, diversity and inclusion officer within the faculty of music.

The faculty’s dean at the time responded in his own letter, saying the administration agrees that action is needed to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

“The institutional culture detailed in the letter is distressingly toxic and needs to change both immediately and permanently,” Don McLean wrote on May 27. “It is clear that we have failed to ensure the safety of our community. The painful truths of individuals, and those of others whose voices are not yet registered, are deeply shocking and upsetting.”

McLean also responded to the four requests from the FMUA and made some promises, including creating a group that will conduct broad consultations over the summer.

FMUA’s vice-president of communications, Vanessa Ng, who just completed her second year of music education, said she doesn’t feel safe heading back to campus in September if more action isn’t taken.

“It’s all buried deep into the culture and the institution,” she said.

U of T's music program fosters culture of sexual harassment and fear, students, faculty claim
A passerby photographs the art installation set up on campus on June 28. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Master’s student Danielle Sum, who signed the letter, said if the culture doesn’t change, she wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending the program to future students.

“It’s kind of sad for me to see the school reputation be tarnished. But at the same time, I’m glad to see there are issues that are being brought to light,” she said in an interview. 

‘Culture of music has always kind of dealt with this’

At the end of June, three unions penned a letter to the U of T administration with a series of demands to address the culture within the faculty, saying many members reported feeling unsafe.

Amy Conwell, chair of CUPE Local 3902, which represents more than 360 members in the faculty of music, said members have faced legal threats from an alleged perpetrator when they commented on a post in support of a woman who shared allegations of sexual harassment on social media.

CBC News spoke with three people who each received a similar letter from his lawyer, which was first sent to U of T’s office of the vice-provost, faculty and academic life. It asks that the university require the instructors to remove the comments and claims that they breach university policy.

“She has no business participating in students’ public Facebook (unproven and false) allegations against another faculty member,” the letter states. “These comments are harassing, uncivil, defamatory, and conduct not becoming of their positions at U of T and the university as a whole.”

Conwell said U of T’s labour relations department sent the letters to the union to pass on to its members. CUPE 3902 has since filed a grievance. She said the university didn’t require the instructors who received the letter to remove their comments from the post.

“The idea that not only survivors can be silenced, but just folks who are standing in solidarity with survivors would be silenced actively by the university and by folks in power in the music world is really unacceptable,” Conwell said.

U of T's music program fosters culture of sexual harassment and fear, students, faculty claim
A spokesperson for the University of Toronto says the school ‘cares deeply’ about the safety of its students, faculty and staff and is working to address the issues within the faculty of music. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

U of T said that due to privacy reasons, it can’t comment on specific allegations or grievance processes.

“As noted previously, the university has robust policies and procedures in place around sexual violence and harassment. This is a highly sensitive subject for many within our community, and we are bound by legal limitations in terms of what we can disclose,” the university said in a statement. 

While some people have come forward with complaints and allegations, FMUA says others are too afraid.

“The whole culture of music has always kind of dealt with this,” Ng said. “Your reputation is a really big deal. And if you say something ill of someone, then no one’s going to call you for gigs, or no one’s going to want to book you.”

The university said the school “cares deeply” about the safety of students, faculty and staff and that a safe and welcoming environment is a top priority.

It said the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre and the university’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office are closely engaged in its work to address issues within the faculty of music.

Call for changes to ‘convoluted’ complaint process

Sessional instructor Tara Kannangara, one of two women of colour faculty members at U of T Jazz, co-authored an open letter outlining experiences of racism and the handling of a complaint she filed.

Kannangara says when she reported being verbally attacked in a faculty meeting in May after addressing issues of race and discrimination, she didn’t feel the process was adequate or helpful.

“It was incredibly convoluted,” she said.

“To ask for any kind of accountability over and over again and to have to retell the story is just so hard for your body and mind to take.”

U of T's music program fosters culture of sexual harassment and fear, students, faculty claim
Tara Kannangara, a sessional instructor at U of T Jazz, says she can’t ethically recommend that students go through the reporting process as it exists now when she doesn’t trust the system. (Submitted by Adnan Khan)

She said students often come to instructors for guidance, and she can’t ethically recommend they go through the reporting process as it exists now when she doesn’t trust the system.

CUPE 3902 is asking the university to change the way complaints are handled, including by ensuring there are clear, mutually agreeable timelines for investigations and protection for survivors and whistleblowers.

“There are robust policies and processes in place at the university to address concerns of sexual harassment and violence, and to provide support for those who are affected. There are also a set of policies and guidelines to address complaints of harassment and discrimination,” U of T’s statement said.

The university says a planned change in leadership recently took place and that the new dean of the faculty of music, Ellie Hisama, has already started consultations and will be speaking publicly about what happens next in the coming weeks.

FMUA says a new dean brings optimism, noting that everyone — from the administration to students — must be willing to work together in order to create institutional change.

“Please just help us and listen,” Ng said.

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