Thursday, January 24, 2008

SFU Prof Allegedly "Fixated" on Student's Breasts


What man would put his name on a Simon Fraser University Department which for years allegedly operated a sexual harassment ring?

Michael Audain, that’s who.

Audain, Chair of Polygon Homes Ltd., slapped down $2 million dollars for the SFU Center for the Contemporary Arts where the main exhibition hall will be named the Audain Visual Arts Teaching Gallery. His donation will also establish an Audain Visiting Chair in Visual Arts.

The Visual Arts Department appears to have been the worst offender when it comes to sexual harassment in the Center for the Contemporary Arts. That’s according to a woman who dropped out of Visual Arts due to being chronically sexually harassed by two professors in the 1980’s. She claimed in a written statement to SFU that her life was ruined by being unable to graduate.

“All studio courses were taught by male professors,” says the woman who dropped out, “and all of them were trying to get laid.” She adds, “This was going on for years.” It started long before she arrived, she says, and she doesn’t believe it suddenly stopped when she dropped out.

She believes though that the sexual harassment would have diminished in the years after she dropped out, as two of the offenders eventually left to teach at other institutions. But one offender remained and was promoted to Head of the Visual Arts Department. “They promoted him after I exposed him,” she says. She suspects this professor became more discreet after she exposed him but she doubts he stopped treating his classes as “harvesting sites” for sex partners. “He was so compulsive about it, I just can’t see him quitting completely.”

She provides one graphic example of his compulsive sexual harassment, an incident which occurred during a first year studio class. As was typical in studio classes, the professor would rotate around the room, visiting each student at their small work space to discuss the project they were working on. These visits would last at least 15 minutes. When this professor arrived at the work space of the woman who would eventually drop-out, she was talking to him about her project when he locked his eyes on her nipples. “He stared and stared at my nipples,” she says. “He wasn’t hearing a word I was saying.” He never once looked up from her nipples to her face while she was talking. She still remembers what she was wearing that day, a navy blue ski turtleneck; the studio could be cold at times. “I was talking to him about my project and he wasn’t hearing, he was fixated on my nipples [she makes googly eyes to illustrate]; he was in his own little world; it was like he was in a trance. He was getting aroused right there in the studio! I just kept talking, trying to act normal; I thought he would snap out of it.” Then he abruptly walked out of the studio, without saying a word. "It was rare for him to walk out of the studio while class was in session,” she says. “I remember it happening one other time; it was when an older student named Daniel told him he thought his wife was on campus looking for him.”

This professor as well as all other Visual Arts professors trying to get laid had spouses and children. One was reportedly separated — but as one Dance student who entered a sexual relationship with him found out, he had no intention of divorcing his wife. He later re-united with his wife.

The woman who dropped out says sexual harassment was a problem not only in the Visual Arts Department but throughout the Center for the Arts – which housed departments of Film, Dance, etc. — as early as the 1970’s. She refers to it as the ‘Center for Tits and Ass’.

But it could now be called the ‘Center Flush with Cash’.

Fifty million dollars is being given to the Center for the Contemporary Arts by the Liberal government, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell announced last year. The Center has set a goal of raising another $30 million from the private sector. So far $17 million has been raised. This is upsetting to the woman who dropped out and now lives a few blocks away in the impoverished Downtown Eastside.

The woman who dropped out says there is a possibility that SFU President, Michael Stevenson, concealed from Audain the festering issue of the sexual harassment ring that harmed her ability to graduate. “There is no doubt that Stevenson is aware of this issue and he should be disclosing it to donors,” she says. She was in email contact with Stevenson as recently as last year; his receptionist acknowledged that he had received the email. Stevenson was also copied a letter addressed to Dr. Ernie Love last year. Love, Head of the SFU’s new Segal Graduate School of Business, was told in the lengthy letter that it was inappropriate for SFU to be building a global reputation with ‘expansionist projects’ while continuing to bury it’s history of operating a sexual harassment ring.

But Stevenson would not have been entirely able to conceal SFU’s alleged sexual harassment record from donors now that the story has broken on the internet. “If Audain had done a Google search, he would have come across it,” says the woman who dropped out. Articles criticizing Premier Campbell for handing $50 million to a Center which has persisted in evading its sexual harassment history, have appeared on internet news sites, Blogger News Network and NowPublic, as well as on the Downtown Eastside Enquirer blog.

Despite the internet raising public awareness about the Visual Arts Department’s reputation as a haven for professors who “preferred to teach female students flat on their backs”, the woman who dropped out doesn’t expect to see him take a stand on the issue any time soon. She points out that he’s established a business relationship with SFU that he would no doubt want to preserve: he was the developer of a housing project at SFU. “He may owe them a favor; maybe he expects there to be another housing project up there in the future and he’d like to get in on it. I don’t know but it looks to me like he has an ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ relationship with SFU.”

When SFU granted Audain an honorary doctorate, he was described in their literature as a lifelong civil rights activist, starting as a young man by “joining the Mississippi civil rights marches against racial segregation.” He was once even thrown into prison in Mississippi for standing his ground in the Black section of a restaurant in a bus depot, refusing to leave. Audain went on to hold the first meeting of the BC Civil Liberties Association in his living room. According to SFU literature, “Michael Audain puts his beliefs into practice.”

“I’d like to see him put his beliefs into practice”, says the woman who dropped out of SFU due to alleged chronic sexual harassment. “I was denied my right to an education.” She would specifically like to see Audain put his beliefs into practice by putting a ‘Stop Payment’ on his cheque and, “at the very least” taking his name off the Center for the Arts until the it’s history is addressed.

Last week, a Downtown Eastside Enquirer writer emailed Audain — SFU published Audain’s email bbinns@polyhomes.com on their website — and asked if he saw a contradiction between his history of taking a stand on Black civil rights issues and his current endorsement of the SFU Center for the Contemporary Arts which has a reputation for interfering with the right of females to an education. No response was received.

Audain may not acknowledge receiving the email but, being a product of 1960’s activism, he would surely acknowledge having heard the John Lennon/Yoko Ono tune, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.’

2 comments:

clive coogan said...

Ok.. this is simply weird.  I was an Art student at the Centre for the Arts (81-86) during the time of this so-called "sexual harassment ring".  I stumbled across this quasi news story during a simple goggle search for info.  First, the program was very small- maybe 25 students in the entire 4 year program.  There were 3 faculty members teaching Art.  Calling this "a ring" seems rather exaggerated to say the least.  It takes a minimum of three people to form a ring holding hands therefore at least 5 out of the 25 students need to jump into it to make it a reality.  The news story seems to suggest a much larger faculty & student count to justify such allegations.  I simply did not ever witness this kind of behavior in my classroom other than the normal sexual energy present between pupil and teacher.  In fact the energy is most often perpetuated by the student.  Especially within such a small student / faculty ratio and the fact that your damn career depended on your professor not only liking your work, but liking you.  This is not a new concept in the academic world and frankly begins in High School.  So, I wonder if this is not simply a witchhunt perpetuated by a former woman/student who like most opportunists in the Art World sacrificed her body to justify the inherent lack of talent which seems to always make it into the Vancouver Art Gallery.  I can tell you this: As a Gay student in a very hetero program I was never offered a cock to suck to get a show at the OR Gallery.  In fact, I should be angry that those three professors never offered me the same opportunity to graduate with honors.  The world will never change wether we are talking about The Centre for The Arts or the Guggenheim Museum.  Most everyone will take off their "ring" for an opportunity.  Except me! 

reliable sources said...

Clive,

You left the same comment on two articles posted at the Downtown Eastside Enquirer on the topic of the alleged SFU sexual harassment ring. (You left the same comment as well at a post at nowpublic.) Your responses suggest you either have not bothered to actually read the articles to which you are responding or you suffer from comprehension problems.

Your write,
"First, the program was very small- maybe 25 students in the entire 4 year program."

In my reporting on the alleged sexual harassment ring, it has been made clear that the student body in the SFU Visual Arts department was small at the time. I reported that there were roughly 12-15 students in any given Visual Arts class.

You write,
"It takes a minimum of three people to form a ring holding hands therefore at least 5 out of the 25 students need to jump into it to make it a reality."

It was clearly reported in my articles that there were just THREE professors in the SFU Visual Arts studio program at the time -- Greg Snider, Jeff Wall, and David McWilliam – and that the sexual harassment "ring" was comprised of these THREE professors. By "ring", I mean professors sharing information with one another, even competing with one another, to get into the pants of female students.

I mentioned reports that sexual harassment had been occurring in other departments of the Center for the Arts as well, but my articles have focused primarily on the identifiable "ring" in the Visual Arts department.

You write,
"The news story seems to suggest a much larger faculty & student count to justify such allegations."

You don't mention which of the news stories you are referring to here; as I noted earlier, you left your comment on two Downtown Eastside Enquirer stories. My articles do not "suggest a much larger faculty & student count". To the contrary, it is suggested that it was precisely the small number of faculty and students in an informal studio environment, that allowed a sexual harassment ring to operate in the Visual Arts Department.

A well bonded group of three male professors, close in age, with similar values and similar attitudes toward women, can keep a secret and cover for one another if necessary. Once any group grows beyond three people though, it becomes more difficult to keep a secret.

You write,
"I simply did not ever witness this kind of behaviour in my classroom other than the normal sexual energy...."

You are not alone, Clive. Even women being sexually harassed were not always aware of other women in the same class becoming targets. And from what I'm told, the sexual harassment did not always occur within clear view of an entire classroom of students, and it did not always occur while a studio class was formally in session.

One alleged sexual harassment victim says she had no idea that Greg Snider had been hitting on a classmate until the classmate disclosed this to her. The disclosure came after the first woman mentioned rampant Visual Arts sexual harassment while in a Women's Studies (History) class. A classmate in both the Women's History class and the Visual Arts class approached her shortly afterward to tell her that Greg Snider had been hitting on her. Snider would reportedly stroke the latter woman's back and ask her how she was doing -- hardly, "the normal sexual energy" between student and professor. Neither woman had known that the other was being sexually harassed. Imagine that, Clive.

The incident in which Snider fixated on a student's nipples did occur while a studio class was in session (these classes were reportedly 3 or 4 hours long), but not in full view of other students. Snider was reportedly standing with this particular student at her work station, which she recalls was situated next to a pillar. "I was standing by the pillar, I remember I was wearing a navy blue turtleneck; I remember it like it was yesterday, I've told so many people about it over the years." Other students working on their own art projects some distance away, chatting with other students, weren't necessarily in a position to see Snider's eyes locking on one student's nipples.

Artist Allison Clay left her spouse David McWilliam not long after he bedded a student in 2nd year. Makes you wonder, Clive, if she was noticing things that went beyond the "normal sexual energy" of professors and students. But then again, even a student cognizant of the presence of the sexual harassment ring says she didn't realize until much later that McWilliam was actually having sexual relations with a student. She had seem him gaze at this student in a sexually interested manner, but, "When they were in studio, it wasn't like they lay down on the couch together."

You write,
"So, I wonder if this is not simply a witchhunt (sic) perpetuated by a former woman/student who like most opportunists in the Art World sacrificed her body to justify the inherent lack of talent which seems to always make it into the Vancouver Art Gallery."

Clive, you could have been an adviser at the SFU Center for the Arts. One alleged sexual harassment victim, who apparently never "sacrificed her body", was encouraged by an adviser to act like one of your perceived "opportunists in the Art World" and essentially use Jeff Wall for what she could get out of him. The student had gone to the office of this adviser – she remembers his name being "Tony" and that he had an office in the Center for the Arts "portables" -- to talk about problems she was having with Wall. Tony cut the conversation off early; she suspects he knew that she could disclose sexual harassment if he allowed her enough leeway. She recalls him launching into a "patronizing" lecture about how she could get to be like Ken Lum. "I had never heard of Ken Lum", she says. Tony explained that Lum had developed a close personal relationship with Wall while a student in the Visual Arts department and that the relationship had helped Lum get ahead. Tony told her that after graduating from SFU Visual Arts, Lum had gotten accepted to, she believes he said, "New York University". "Tony was impressed by this; I don't know why," she says. "He told me I could do the same if I played my cards right with Wall."

You write,
"As a Gay student in a very hetero program I was never offered a cock to suck to get a show at the OR Gallery."

I realize you're trying to inject humor into your comment, but you're obviously not familiar with the SFU Visual Arts program. The SFU Center for the Arts had nothing to do with the Or Gallery, according to two sources. I have been told that the only connection was that the Or Gallery was run by Ken Lum, an SFU Visual Arts graduate and friend and protégé of Jeff Wall. Undergraduates at SFU were not getting shows at the Or Gallery, according to my sources.

You write,
"In fact, I should be angry that my three professors never offered me the same opportunity to graduate with honors."

I realize you're being facetious but, for the record, my sources have never claimed that SFU Visual Arts professors offered higher marks in exchange for sexual favors. I reported that one woman who was a target of sexual harassment saw her grades drop in Jeff Wall's classes to well below the grades she was getting in classes external to the Center for the Arts.

You write,
"Had I only known that all it took was a few loads in the mouth for a show at the VAG."

Clive, you're going off half-cocked; pardon the expression. From what I've been told, professors angling for sex with students had little or no power to get a student a show at the VAG. But of course, you know that.

You obviously don't believe sexual harassment is something to be too concerned about. Another gay male in the SFU Center for the Arts may have had a similar attitude. Grant Strate who taught in Dance and later became Director of the Center was made aware of the sexual harassment issue. Strate asked the complainant via voice mail if she was ok with him allowing Greg Snider to listen to a tape of what she had reported. She agreed. Strate did nothing about her complaint. She never heard from him again.

As I have pointed out in previous commentary on the alleged sexual harassment ring, the real question about this case is why SFU has spent years evading it's obligation to hold an investigation.