For the last year, University of British Columbia (UBC) graduate Glynnis Kirchmeier has been working to hold her alma mater accountable for the sexual violence that happens on its campus. The paralegal has developed 44 recommendations for how the university can better respond to reports of sexual violence—what she calls her “unfinished business” in B.C.
Her advocacy for those who have experienced sexual violence at UBC began in January 2014. About two years prior, she says she witnessed inappropriate behaviour by a graduate student and alerted school administration to it. “When I first observed him, he was touching a woman without her consent, but not her breasts, ass, or head. So it was relatively ‘subtle’ even though her body language was extremely unhappy,” she says. The incident was reportedly not a one-off. The student, Dmitry Mordvinov, is accused of having assaulted at least seven women on campus. (None of the allegations have been proven.)
Kirchmeier approached UBC’s Equity Inclusion Office with what she witnessed. Mordvinov remained at the school, and she wasn’t satisfied with the response. In March 2016, Kirchmeier filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, as an individual and on behalf of anyone who has filed a complaint of any alleged sexual misconduct at the west-coast university.
It was not until CBC’s The Fifth Estate aired the episode “School of Secrets” on November 23, 2015, reporting on Mordvinov’s actions that the university took action. Mordvinov was quietly expelled. (Mordvinov told CBC he would be appealing the expulsion.) The women he is reported to have assaulted were not alerted by the school but learned of his expulsion through media reports. “I think it’s obscene that it takes an hour-long documentary to expel an abuser,” Kirchmeier says.
Now, Kirchmeier has become an confidant for women who have experienced sexual violence on campus. The majority of women who have come to her with their experiences and grievances against the school have done so because of media coverage. “Sometimes they reach out and then are not ready to continue, or it triggers them. Some have shared their stories and then moved on. It really depends,” she says. “We’re still figuring all this out.” Grievances reported to her, she adds, are from as early as the 1990s and they are “pretty continuous from that point on.”
Kirchmeier wants to see a system in place that protects students who speak with school administration about campus sexual violence. Too often in the past, she says, these complaints, and complainants, are brushed off. A Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), which provides comprehensive care to victims in crisis, is a reasonable request of the school by students, Kirchmeier says. “Nothing I’m proposing is out of the realm of what students request,” she adds.
The university says they do offer SART services, but they are only available through Vancouver General Hospital. Furthermore, the response team only provides services to complete a rape kit process.
Many survivors say UBC’s process, or lack thereof, has caused students who have experienced sexual violence more harm than good. “The attack itself didn’t make me a victim; this process has made me a victim of procedure and of bureaucracy,” Caitlin Cunningham, a woman allegedly attacked by Mordvinov on campus, told CBC News. “And I got lost in the mess of it all. I mean, the system is broken from start to finish.”
There is no precedent for what Kirchmeier is fighting for, and this is not a cookie-cutter case. The legal process is slow and she faces a university with an in-house legal team. Meanwhile, Mordvinov is back home in Russia. Since the university’s structure of command is intentionally unclear, there is no measure of accountability. “So if you look at the Equity office’s structure, it isn’t clear exactly what each person does,” Kirchmeier says.
In the meantime, Kirchmeier continues to advocate for sexual assault survivors. As a white woman growing up in the United States, Kirchmeier became interested in power dynamics. In the past she has worked with Planned Parenthood and acted in a production of The Vagina Monologues. She sees her current activism parallel to that of her past as it all pertains to body autonomy. Back at UBC, Kirchmeier says all but one professor have refused to support her case. Outside of the university, she has the support of her family, especially her mother. After graduating in 2013, Kirchmeier moved back home to Washington. She says that Vancouver is a company town, and one that is influenced by UBC. Living in Washington, she knows her employability will not be affected the same way others who are still living in B.C. may be. Because UBC has such a ubiquitous presence in the city, she says it’s hard to find a job when you’re critical of the school.
Kirchmeier is aware that it is difficult to be an activist, but she wants to rise to the occasion and honour the work of other women with this opportunity. She would like to see a university where women can fully access their education free of discrimination and violence.
A mediation session between Kirchmeier and UBC was held on October 24, 2016. However, the parties did not reach an agreement. The complaint process will move forward— and Kirchmeier is ready.