Dear SFU faculty: It's on all of us to respond to sexual violence

January 24, 2019 , Written by Ashley Bentley

SVSPO Educator Ashley Bentley sat down with Stuart Poyntz, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology to talk about why faculty members should get involved in Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) at SFU, and how faculty members can all play a role in responding to and preventing sexual violence on campus.

Ashley: Stuart, thank you for sitting down with me. So-why do you think SFU faculty members should join the conversation for SAAM?

Stuart: Faculty members are key to mobilizing student interest and concern. We know when students engage with faculty in their classes and programs, that their learning can fundamentally change. If faculty take the lead, students and staff will follow. They will pay attention and engage. For faculty members at SFU what this requires is an act of courage, to put ourselves forward, to be identifiable faces in support of SAAM and sexual violence prevention at SFU.  Otherwise this issue risks sliding under the radar. Students have a lot to pay attention to within a campus environment and so our role is to raise the profile of this issue and show them it matters fundamentally to everyone’s health, safety and wellbeing. 

Ashley: As an Associate Dean you must witness a lot. Can you tell us about your understanding of how sexual violence impacts campus communities?

Stuart: I speak as an Associate Dean and as a member of the academic community for 12 years at SFU when I say that sexual violence has huge potential to fly under the radar. There is not enough attention to the issue, which can be painful and brutal, and often difficult to confront. We need leadership- department chairs, faculty members and grad students to raise the profile of this issue and engage with a set of practices to challenge the way sexual harassment is reproduced within the academy. It means working closely with the resources on campus like the SVSPO in order to learn how to do this. Sexual violence is about power and the exploitation of others and it is often painfully difficult to talk about for survivors and others. We know sexual violence continues to be part of our lives here and that actions of faculty leaders can encourage people to speak about their experiences and the experiences of others that they have witnessed. To do this we need to confront the power dynamics of the academy which requires people to stand up, to address particular events that happen at SFU and to change the culture.

Ashley: Why do you think that some faculty members don’t engage in this topic?

Stuart: It’s complicated. There is often a lot of unseen work that takes place by faculty behind the scenes, it is not always explicit but there is work that some faculty are doing to respond to this issue. Only recently have universities made an explicit effort to advance sexual violence awareness in a more concerted and less crisis orientated way. Ideally faculty members can begin to envision raising awareness and discussing this issue as a part of everyday activity in academia. Perhaps people do not feel comfortable or they are unwilling to acknowledge sexual violence is an issue because they are afraid to talk about it. Often privacy or position within the academy can have an impact on that. If sexual violence is acknowledged, it means it exists, and can be caused by people in positions of power. It involves questioning relationships with colleagues- which is complicated. But we can’t turn our backs to the ways in which power is exercised within a university. It is an embarrassment that this is still a rampant issue within the academy today, we need more pro-active leadership to challenge and confront how sexual violence operates on campus, and we need to make those changes now.

Gender and equality plays a huge part of why people do not engage in the topic. Often male faculty members will feel it’s not their place of action, yet the obligation to act should be amongst all of us. Gender inequalities among faculty can imply this is an issue for female leadership only, yet the obligation should be on all of us on campus to confront sexual violence and assist those who have been impacted.

Ashley: What can faculty members do to better support students who experience sexual violence?

Stuart: Faculty members need to inform themselves about the resources available to support those who have experienced sexual violence. They need to develop a plan of steps to take to support those impacted and make sure all faculty in that department are also aware. Speaking up in classes and other public forums to acknowledge the issue is also key to reducing risk and preventing the reproduction of sexual violence on campus. There are so many modes of engagement to talk to students and staff and fellow faculty and the SVSPO is a resource to support faculty in doing that through education and awareness. It is very important that we all lead by example in the way our language and daily interactions establish conditions of safety and confidence amongst our students. Language matters in fostering a culture of care where students can come forward about their experiences.

Ashley: How can faculty members and departments foster a culture of care?

Stuart: Things we can do is make publicly evident in department meetings, with posters on our office doors and in conversations that we are aware of the problem of sexual violence. It means sharing awareness campaigns and information about resources available. Making our learning spaces explicit displays of support for sexual violence prevention is really an important way of changing cultures and calling out that this type of conduct is never acceptable. Creating a culture of care also means addressing the use of power in a way that takes advantage of vulnerability of those we work with, particularly staff and students.

It has to be acknowledged that in 2019, it is a shock that in academic institutions that the problem of sexual violence remains ever present in our midst. Power continues to reproduce sexual violence, and so this problem remains. It is all of our responsibility to lead in the struggle to change how these kinds of threats and actions are ever present, and to change the culture where survivors are believed and that the root causes of sexual violence are addressed.


More information about Stuart Poyntz can be found here.