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Lessons from an Academic Social Panic

Following on an investigative report detailing McMaster University’s mishandling of false sex-ring accusations in 2020, here are four lessons to help prevent a recurrence

· 11 min read
Lessons from an Academic Social Panic

On June 14th, Quillette published my lengthy investigation into the 2020 sex-ring social panic at McMaster, a large research university located in the Canadian province of Ontario. Because this was a news report, and not an essay, I generally omitted my own views regarding what these events could teach us about sexual-violence prevention-and-response policies at post-secondary educational institutions.

In this follow-up blog post, I set out my opinions on this issue—as based on the information I reported, as well as on certain facts that I wasn’t able to report with specificity, either for legal reasons or because doing so would have breached confidentiality assurances I provided to third parties.

McMaster’s Imaginary Sex Ring
In 2020, a Canadian university tore up its psychology department in search of a non-existent network of sexual predators. Documents obtained by Quillette reveal how administrators allowed it to happen.

For those readers who haven’t read the original article, the following point-form chronological synopsis of events at McMaster will prove helpful:

  • In early 2020, “S.L.,” a female graduate student in McMaster’s department of psychology (known formally as Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, or PNB) claimed to have been repeatedly sexually assaulted in 2017 by a PNB professor named Scott Watter. Watter was suspended by the school and criminally charged.
  • Several months later, S.L. expanded her allegations on the basis of what she described as recovered memories. It wasn’t just S.L. who was involved, she said. Watter’s wife, whom S.L. alleged to be a groomer and voyeur, had also been in on it. S.L. also identified her own live-in girlfriend at the time, “Alice,” as being part of the plot, which supposedly involved a wide variety of cruel and sadistic sexual practices. Both Watter’s wife and Alice were also PNB scholars.
  • In spring 2020, another PNB grad student, “Becca,” came forward with even more horrifying sexual-abuse claims about this same supposed sex ring, while also including another PNB professor in her allegations. Becca said that the sex-ring leaders—whose identity shifted according to the vagaries of her recovered memories—used a complex regime of electronic tools to brainwash women and track their movements.
  • Amid the witch-hunt atmosphere that followed, seven PNB members were investigated. Five (including two women) were banned from having any contact with McMaster colleagues, students, or even alumni. Information was released that allowed the university community to know their identities. It would take almost a year for all of these people to be exonerated of sexual-violence claims. During this time, their reputations were trashed, and the PNB department was thrown into chaos.
  • Becca ended up recanting all of her accusations: By her own account, she’d become paranoid and untethered from reality in early 2020, due to an acute mental-health condition. (She was also in a suggestible state, having just finished binge-watching a Netflix documentary about the sex crimes of Jeffrey Epstein.) Once Becca was properly treated, her paranoid visions of a sex ring dissipated.

    S.L. never recanted. But her credibility was greatly diminished as a result of criminal-court proceedings in which she appeared as a witness. Watter was acquitted on all charges during these proceedings, and the judgment in his case detailed the many contradictory aspects of S.L.’s shifting claims over the previous two years. (Notwithstanding Watter’s acquittal, McMaster is still trying to terminate his employment, on the basis that he had a consensual sexual relationship with S.L. at a time when the emotionally troubled graduate student was, as Watter had reason to know, dependent on him for mental-health support.)
  • Despite clear signs that the sex-ring accusations were false, the McMaster administration—from the school’s newly minted Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Office (SVPRO) on up to the provost and president—did nothing to stop this inquisition from grinding ahead. In fact, the credulous, even ominous, tone of the school’s public communications did much to fuel it.
  • It was later learned by members of the PNB department that the head of the school’s Equity & Inclusion Office (whose jurisdiction included the SVPRO) was married to the woman managing the SVPRO in an acting capacity—a fact that McMaster’s senior administrators knew about, but had not publicly disclosed.

    In order to ensure that these staffing arrangements complied with conflict-of-interest rules, McMaster created a diagonal organizational-chart structure that had the SVPRO’s manager reporting to another department. The result was that the SVPRO was being run by an official who had no access to supervisory oversight within the Equity & Inclusion Office. McMaster’s whole sexual-violence complaint intake system essentially rested on one person, with few checks and balances.
  • The SVPRO, like the university itself, embraced a “trauma-informed” approach to processing sexual-violence complaints, by which administrators were evidently encouraged to treat contradictory and far-fetched-seeming elements of sex-assault narratives as being possible symptoms of the confusion induced by trauma.
  • When questioned about their role in encouraging, or at least abetting, the false accusations aimed at the PNB department, McMaster administrators explained that their sexual-violence reporting and prevention system was based entirely on a prima facie standard. This apparently meant that, insofar as any member of the McMaster community filed any complaint whose narrative elements technically matched the definition of a sexual-violence allegation, no credibility test was applied before the matter was handed over to an external investigator and an internal university Response Team.
  • Ultimately, McMaster’s sex-ring social panic came to an end when the assigned investigator carefully examined the sex-ring allegations and entirely rejected them.
  • In the aftermath, the university conducted an external review of its Equity & Inclusion Office. The report that followed is public—unlike the majority of documents on which my investigation relied—and contains a number of (politely veiled) critiques of the Equity & Inclusion Office and those who managed its operations during the period at issue. The university has also settled grievances with many of the exonerated PNB members who were caught up in the witch hunt. But in other respects, university administrators—including provost Susan Tighe and president David Farrar—remain staunchly unapologetic about their actions.

In the interest of fairness, I should note that McMaster administrators have their own opinions about what happened in 2020. Several of them spoke to me on the record. Their views are included in my full story, and should serve to inform anyone seeking a full understanding of the events I am describing.

What follows are the concrete lessons that I believe flow from this cautionary tale:

  1. A bare-metal prima facie test—at least insofar as McMaster’s administration seems to have applied such a standard—does not provide a workable approach for university officials deciding what sexual-violence cases to pass on to external investigators. A university’s own staff must retain the ability to reject or divert extremely dubious claims on a summary basis.

    Both the university president and the SVPRO manager were clear that absolutely no credibility test was applied to the sex-ring accusations before the machinery of formal investigation and interim suspensions began. In theory, S.L. and Becca could have accused a dozen, or even a hundred, PNB scholars of being members of the PNB department’s (non-existent) sex ring; and, according to the “prima facie” standard at play here, they’d all have been treated in the same draconian way.

    Or the two women might have accused the university’s entire senior administration team of being sex-ring members, and thereby shut down the whole university (at least on an “interim” basis).

    As part of my reporting, I asked senior university administrators to provide a logical and principled means of explaining why this sort of counterfactual case might not lead to such an outcome. They declined to do so.

    Such a system is obviously unsustainable. It’s one thing to err on the side of believing the victim, a practice that many people support. It’s another thing for university staff to disavow their critical faculties entirely.
  2. Having a single administrative worker manage both intake of sexual-violence complaints and subsequent case management is a bad idea.

    As noted in my article, one of the problems at McMaster from the very beginning was a poorly designed organizational architecture, which assigned the administration of numerous sexual-violence prevention-and-response roles to a single official.

    That official, the SVPRO director, would lead classes about sexual violence and trauma, then counsel people (including class attendees) about their alleged sexual-violence experiences at McMaster, help them write up and strengthen their formal complaints, act as the formal intake portal for those complaints, ensure that the complaints passed muster on some de minimis “prima facie” basis, and then jump on a university “Response Team” that would, in turn, perform case management and oversee interim measures during the lengthy investigation period.

    The obvious problem here is that this one university official, having accompanied a complainant through every step of the process, will naturally tend to become personally (and even professionally) vested in the complaint narrative—even once that official is situated as a nominally neutral functionary on a university Response Team. The only way to fix that is to ensure the procedural baton is passed to other officials between the stages of complaint intake and institutional response.

    Even assuming unerring good faith and emotional detachment on the part of the SVPRO manager, moreover, one also runs up against the limitations of human expertise. It is hard to imagine that any one university official could have the broad range of knowledge and experience—in criminology, domestic violence, mental health, evidence handling, witness reliability, and, yes, trauma—required to properly assess the baseline credibility of sexual-violence complaints in any reliable manner.

    The woman running the SVPRO in 2020 was a trained social worker who told Quillette that she saw no signs that Becca had been in the throes of an acute mental-health crisis at the time she made her formal sexual-violence complaint. And there’s no reason to believe that this social worker isn’t being completely truthful in that assertion (or any other assertion). But then again, few of us—including most social workers—have the psychiatric expertise required to make that kind of determination.

    In this regard, administrators’ endless sloganeering about taking a “trauma-informed” approach are instructive. Should this sort of SVPRO role be “trauma-informed”? Well yes, of course—in the general sense of being cognizant of the manner by which trauma can, in some cases, genuinely muddle a victim’s memory of terrible events. But the role also has to be “informed” by a dozen other factors besides—which is to say, the whole range of human frailties, pathologies, tics, emotions, and motivations that have to be considered when making an assessment, even a preliminary one, of sexual-assault accusations. Presenting just one of those factors as a pathway to truth makes no sense.

    As the McMaster example shows, an excessive reliance on a “trauma-informed” approach can actually undermine the accuser, not just the accused. Specifically: Becca reports that a university administrator consistently seemed to assign more credibility to her original sex-ring claims than to her later recantation—thanks to that administrator’s unshakable “trauma-informed” conviction that the lurid sex-ring story had been the real truth, while the attempt at recantation was an artifact of trauma.
  3. “Interim” disciplinary measures cause permanent damage.

    Canadian academic culture being what it is, it will surprise no one to learn that pretty much all of the McMaster protagonists who appeared in my story—administrators and academics alike—are politically progressive in their attitudes.

    I mention this fact because it has become a near-universal point of agreement among progressives that policing and criminal-justice procedures can damage the well-being and reputations of individuals before those individuals are ever formally convicted of any crime. That’s why bail reform has become such a big issue. That’s why campus activists are suspicious of a police presence at their schools. That’s why prosecutors have come under scrutiny for using hardball tactics to extract plea bargains out of desperate defendants who are terrified of serving jail time. Even informed conservatives know that you don’t have to be convicted of a crime to become a victim, in some way, of the police state.

    Yet when it comes to analogous issues arising in regard to academics who stand accused in administrative proceedings of violating sexual-violence and sexual-harassment policies, all of these concerns seem to evaporate. As at McMaster, it is somehow seen as perfectly acceptable by bien pensant university administrators to tear apart a scholar’s life for months on end, even before he or she has a chance to know the accusations that have been made against him, or the identity of the accuser.

    Readers who have gone through my original article will know that the draconian treatment of the accused PNB scholars was cruel and absurd—right down to having their offices searched for alcohol and drugs, as in scenes involving jazz-age morality squads. McMaster has never apologized to anyone for these outrageous steps, but instead has continued to promulgate what are, in effect, tough-on-crime platitudes about keeping the campus safe from (in this case, completely imaginary) sexual predators.

    McMaster isn’t the only university where administrators who present as committed progressives behave in this deeply hypocritical manner. But I confess that I am unaware of any better example.
  4. University administrators have too much money, and too little accountability.

    Ontario university administrators, including those at McMaster, have been complaining for years about their limited budgets. Yet when it came to hiring lawyers, investigators, and consultants to manage the fallout from their own bad decisions, Tighe and Farrar seem to have been operating with complete carte blanche.

    At least three separate law firms were able to enrich themselves at McMaster’s expense by performing investigative or consulting work associated with the sex-ring file and its fallout. And that doesn’t include the external communications company the university brought in to help with its botched public messaging in mid-2020; nor the experts brought in to review the Equity & Inclusion Office.

    Come to think of it, the only protagonists in this scandal who seem to have escaped any sort of official investigation were the school’s most senior administrators themselves. And one wonders how much better things might have turned out if the provost and president, being more constrained in their financial means, had been forced to display the courage and leadership necessary to avert this mess in the first place, instead of hiring others to come clean it up.
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