The vice-president of University of Toronto has added her voice to a slew of female academics who allege a former U of T provost engaged in sexual relationships with his students and sexually harassed them for years before, during and after his tenure in Toronto.
The allegations, detailed in a podcast published Tuesday by Al Jazeera, led to Trinity College announcing an external investigation. U of T pledged to stamp out sexual violence and harassment; the president pledged the university to “do everything in its power” to protect community members.
In the podcast, vice-president Alexandra Gillespie went on the record about an incident where Andy Orchard, a professor of English and Medieval Studies at U of T from 2000 to 2013, whose portrait still hangs at Trinity, allegedly confronted her in a sexual manner.
“I remember it in fragments,” she said. “He seemed to me very drunk and he cornered me on a staircase. And because he wasn’t letting me leave, it felt like a threat.
“I remember him saying: ‘I am going to destroy you.’ ”
The Star reached out to Orchard, who did not respond before deadline. Orchard’s lawyers sent a five-page letter to Al Jazeera disputing the allegations, but did not permit any of it to appear in the report.
Gillespie said she didn’t report the incident because she was too frightened, as Orchard, who was provost and vice-chancellor of Trinity College, was a powerful figure.
“It made me feel very degraded and undervalued and just confused,” she said in the podcast. “There’s this instinctive reaction that you should please him to keep yourself safe and also to be the right kind of woman — the woman who can take a joke.”
The Al Jazeera report includes a half-dozen allegations of sexual harassment and impropriety by Orchard, who taught at the prestigious University of Cambridge in the U.K. before U of T and is now a professor at Oxford.
Female professors and students alleged Orchard was often drunk for meetings and engaged in several sexual relationships with young women where there was a clear power imbalance.
Gillespie, who is an internationally renowned humanities researcher and principal of the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she is also the chair of the department of English and drama, said she felt it is important to speak out.
“Finally I have reached a position where if I spoke, if I said ‘no,’ there couldn’t be reprisals,” she said in the podcast. “I no longer want to be complicit in this damaging silence.”
“That is what happens when you promote people who have previously been marginalized into positions of power. You give them the ability to speak of their experiences and then to change the cultures that made those negative experiences possible.”
The Star contacted Gillespie, who declined to comment. “I believe I’ve said what I wanted — and feel able — to say on the podcast.”
In an email sent out Wednesday to members of Trinity College, provost Mayo Moran said: “The material that has been published raises very serious issues that are deeply troubling.”
While Moran would not comment on the specific case due to “privacy and related considerations,” she announced the college will hire an external expert to examine any “Trinity-specific issues” that need to be addressed.
In a separate statement, U of T president Meric Gertler said the experiences described in the Al Jazeera report “are deeply distressing and troubling to all of us.”
Noting that a new policy on sexual violence and harassment was brought in after Orchard’s alleged sexual misconduct, Gertler said a review of this policy is now underway and it will include input from survivors.
“While we have worked hard to make our policies robust, we acknowledge that there is more that needs to be done — given the particular dynamics at play in higher education settings,” he said. “I want to assure members of our community — especially survivors — that I am according this issue the highest priority.”
The Al Jazeera report also alleges Orchard engaged in a public sexual act during a conference dinner and had an affair with a young woman during his time at U of T. In a separate incident, a group of graduate students complained when Orchard made advances toward a student at a pub, but were told that the only consequence was a letter in his personnel file, according to the report.
Trinity College Against Sexual Assault and Harassment, a student-run organization focused on sexual assault prevention and advocacy, released its own statement calling on the school to investigate the claims made against Orchard.
The group asked for public statements from Trinity College and the university condemning Orchard’s conduct and demanded his portrait be removed from the college dining hall.
Moran said in the statement to the school community that the portrait would be removed from display while a review by the college is being conducted.
The portrait was still prominently displayed Wednesday afternoon, when a Star photographer visited the college.
“We were aware of some of his conduct and the allegations against him since last year, and we had brought that forward to the administration,” said Micah Kalisch, president of the group. “We didn’t get much of a response.
Kalisch said the response from the school has been lacklustre and she hopes the review of the sexual violence policy will include important updates, like a no-tolerance policy on student-staff relationships.
“I am very cautiously optimistic and I say this because the university has shown a pattern of negligence … and consistently silences survivors,” she said.
In June, U of T students at the faculty of music put forward an open letter to the school calling for action against “ongoing misogyny” and sexual harassment at the university and pointed to frequent mishandling of sexual violence on campus.