L’Affaire Galloway

Whatever the star UBC prof may have done, the university made things worse

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler
Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

When police arrived at his Holiday Inn room, Steven Galloway had been crying, but he was not, he insisted, suicidal. It was a cool mid-November evening in 2015, and the award-winning author had, hours earlier, given a lecture at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio. Galloway told the officer that, ten minutes prior to the event, he had received an email from the University of British Columbia putting him on notice that he was at the centre of a sexual-assault investigation involving a student. Ohio police were following up on a call from fellow creative-writing faculty member Annabel Lyon. She was afraid that Galloway’s reaction to the news could make him a threat to himself, and instructed police not to trust him if he claimed he was fine. “Steven can be very manipulative in order to get what he wants,” Lyon said.

Galloway admitted that he had “never felt this low,” but he had two daughters and was “too much of a coward” to kill himself. Raised in the BC town of Kamloops, the then forty-year-old novelist had spent his entire adult life at UBC: he’d been an undergraduate in the late 1990s and then a graduate student in fine arts before becoming a lecturer, and, finally, in 2013, a tenured professor and the chair of the creative-writing program. The police report states that Galloway was “very upset at these false allegations, as they are likely to lead to him losing his job.” The officer responded by placing him, against his will, in Miami Valley Hospital for a mental-health evaluation. Alone in a strange town and on lockdown in a psych unit, Galloway was traumatized. His girlfriend—now his wife—flew out to advocate for his early release, and authorities obliged.

As writing gigs go, Galloway had one of the best. He was head of the longest-running, the largest, and the most highly regarded creative-writing department in the country. The program dates back to 1965, when UBC became the first Canadian university to offer workshop courses—a peer-review method, pioneered at the University of Iowa in 1936, whereby groups of aspiring writers critique one another’s poetry and fiction. In the 1990s, the UBC program was a money-losing operation, but it has since grown into a successful marquee enterprise: nearly 4,000 students take its courses annually. Instructors include Giller Prize winners and finalists such as Lyon and Joseph Boyden; graduates have gone on to become some of the most celebrated names in Canadian publishing, among them Lee Henderson and Madeleine Thien. Agents, editors, and publishers regularly scout the university’s writing classes for the next big thing. Galloway, who kept a spreadsheet tracking enrolment sizes, liked to brag to first-years that they’d entered a program that provided CanLit with 10 percent of its authors.

On November 18, Gage Averill, the university’s dean of arts, posted a memo on the department’s website stating that Galloway had been suspended from his duties as department chair. His removal sent shockwaves through the literary community. Eight years ago, his third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, became an international hit. It sold 700,000 copies, was optioned for film, and was translated into more than twenty languages. The UBC program, famed for producing winners, had no better poster child than its own chair.

Galloway’s outcast status immediately drew comparisons with that of another former Canadian star: Jian Ghomeshi. But while rumours of Ghomeshi’s predatory sexual behaviour had been rampant, it was unclear what Galloway had actually done. When Averill spoke to the media on November 18, 2015, he alluded to “serious allegations” but refused to provide details. In subsequent weeks, members of UBC’s faculty, as well as students, began divulging to the press that the charges dealt with incidents of bullying and sexual harassment. The most serious charge, not disclosed at the time, is now said to have involved a sexual relationship with a student. It was the department’s disturbing insinuations—Averill, for example, suggested in the memo that UBC was prioritizing the “safety” of students and faculty—that divided writers, especially on social media, where Galloway’s supporters were vilified as “rape apologists.”

On June 22, 2016, Philip Steenkamp, UBC’s vice-president of external relations, announced that Galloway would not be returning to his position. The university’s decision to fire him without severance followed a months-long investigation by former BC Supreme Court judge Mary Ellen Boyd. In a statement, Steenkamp claimed that Boyd’s report—ordered by UBC and currently unrelated to any criminal proceedings—had revealed, in Steenkamp’s words, “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members by the university, its students and the general public.”

“I’m so relieved that UBC did the right thing,” said one complainant, quoted the next day in the Vancouver Observer. UBC’s mishandling of previous sexual-assault complaints had received national attention, most notably in the case of PhD history student Dmitry Mordvinov. According to a Fifth Estate investigation, the university had waited a year and a half before acting on complaints made in 2014 by at least six women who claimed that twenty-eight-year-old Mordvinov had sexually assaulted or harassed them (he was ultimately expelled). After the investigation aired in late 2015, interim UBC president Martha Piper admitted that the university needed to do better. Frustration about the Mordvinov case led UBC faculty members to speak out against the institution in January 2016—at least two creative-writing professors signed an open letter pledging “to take an active part in improving UBC’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault.”

Galloway may have seemed like a good test case for UBC’s zero-tolerance policy. But after studying the matter, Boyd threw out nearly every allegation made against him, including the assault claim Galloway had learned about in Ohio. (The Boyd report has never been released to the public—but the contents were made available to The Walrus during the course of my reporting.) Only one complaint stuck: Boyd determined that Galloway had conducted an inappropriate relationship with a middle-aged student—a relationship that, according to sources, had lasted several years and spurred speculation among faculty members.

Many of Galloway’s friends, including writers Lee Henderson and Kevin Patterson, have publicly expressed unhappiness over what they see as UBC’s mismanagement of the case. As Hal Wake, artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Festival, told the Canadian Press: “I have concerns that the handling of the matter may have been deeply flawed.” Facing backlash, they have since gone quiet.

Galloway, too, has remained silent, although his Twitter profile may offer some clue as to his feelings: his avatar is now an image of a noose accompanied by the words “The Crucible”—the title of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play that presents an allegory of the Cold War anti-Communist witch hunts.

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

Galloway’s most recent book, The Confabulist (2014), features a narrator named Martin Strauss, whose life has been organized around the belief that he killed history’s greatest magician, Houdini. We soon realize that Strauss’s confession may be a fiction—the result of a cognitive disorder that causes him to fabricate events. Unsure whether his memories are real or imagined, Strauss returns to a deceptively simple question: “How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have?”

That question is also at the centre of the debate that has galvanized UBC students, former students, faculty, and writers—some of whom have been struggling to square their perceptions of the talented novelist, teacher, and administrator they knew with the rumoured contents of the allegations levelled against him. A friend who watched Galloway’s rise through the program described him as “the Steve Jobs of creative writing: entrepreneurial, driven, occasionally abrasive.” He ran the department instinctually—“management by chatting in the corridor,” says the same friend. Galloway was able to leverage the popularity of creative-writing courses by pushing for lecture-style undergraduate classes that featured higher student-teacher ratios. He helped raise enrolment numbers, making him an asset to UBC, which competes with other Canadian graduate writing programs (including reputable departments at Concordia University and the University of New Brunswick) for applicants. To boost morale, he installed a sailing bell in the hallway for students to ring when they graduated. (It was removed after he was fired.)

Some, though, describe a man who was often intemperate—easy to bait, eager to feud. Soon after Raziel Reid’s debut young-adult novel, Everything Feels Like the Movies, won the 2014 Governor General’s Award for children’s fiction—worth $25,000—Galloway invited the twenty-five-year-old phenom to join the department as an adjunct professor. That kind of decisiveness is part of what made him an effective department chair, but it was hard not to see the hire as a dig against National Post columnist Barbara Kay. Appalled by the book’s sexual content, Kay wrote that she wouldn’t have wasted tax dollars on Reid’s “values-void novel,” and her comments inspired a petition demanding that his prize be revoked. In a press release announcing Reid’s appointment, Galloway—who had already sparred with Kay publicly six years earlier over her negative review of a Lisa Moore novel—included the following sentence: “We would like to thank Barbara Kay and everyone who petitioned the Canada Council for the Arts to censor his work for the recommendation.”

One female writer I interviewed praises Galloway for his “nerdy decency.” Others complain that he sidelined female students. “There were women he would just vilify,” says Erika Thorkelson, a freelance writer. “If I had a nickel for every time he called a woman ‘crazy,’ I would be rich.” In Galloway’s world, claims Thorkelson, women were kept in strict categories. There were those he was kind to, those he found attractive, and those he ignored. “I tended to be ignored,” she says.

His admirers see him as generous, loyal, funny, visionary, and sincere. “I’ve never seen a writer as loved by his peers as Galloway,” said Vancouver-based writer Peter Darbyshire days after the allegations emerged. Galloway’s detractors, though, characterize him as juvenile, egomaniacal, bullying, unprofessional, and sexist. Both camps, however, bring up the local veterans’ canteen, where he held court.

The canteen, commonly known as the Legion, is located in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. It’s a tired space that serves cheap beer on rickety tables. Galloway would convene Thursday-night sessions there with up to ten students. The group would stay late, consuming alcohol at a pace that made some uncomfortable. “I would leave before everyone had too many drinks,” says a former student I’ll call Alison. According to Erin Flegg, Galloway’s former teaching assistant, these sessions became an informal part of the curriculum: participants would vie for Galloway’s approval and the gifts they felt he could bestow—references, teaching jobs at UBC, introductions to agents and publishers. He played favourites, says Flegg, creating a club of insiders. “He had power in that respect. The better friends you were with him, the more you benefited.”

The Legion is where one of the incidents is alleged to have taken place four years ago. According to Alison’s version of events, it had its roots in an exchange from the year before, when one of her friends, also a student, had admitted to Galloway that she didn’t like his writing. Galloway told her that he wanted to slap her, but wouldn’t—not until she graduated and was no longer one of his students. One night in 2012, Galloway met up with several students at the Legion to celebrate their graduation. It wasn’t late, but Galloway had already had quite a lot to drink, according to the witness. He was joking with the student who had insulted him, and then announced, “It’s time.” With that, he slapped her face. “It was loud and more serious than I expected,” says Alison. “There was a pause around the table. I was looking to see how my colleagues were going to respond. I looked at her. She looked startled. She sort of laughed it off. Then everything sort of went back to normal.”

The others at the table were either shocked or confused, but they were willing to go along with the idea that this had been nothing more than a joke between two friends. The woman who’d been slapped reacted as if she’d been in on the joke—which could have encouraged the others to file it away as just another example of the kind of weirdness Galloway was known for. “At the time, I remember rationalizing it: ‘Okay, she consented to it,’” says Alison. But today, she sees the incident as “totally not appropriate.” Alison says she later learned that the student had been distressed by Galloway’s behaviour.

But he also faced more troubling accusations. For about three years, Galloway conducted a relationship with a writer in her forties. He had a wife and kids; she had a long-term partner. They had met while she was taking an undergraduate course, hoping to enrol in UBC’s creative-writing program. “He invited her to come drinking,” says Flegg. “That’s how the relationship began. The power dynamics were there from the start: getting in was contingent on him liking her. That was common knowledge in the program. There was a culture of fawning over him.”

At some point during the affair, things changed. “She stopped coming out,” says Flegg. “Then, after a certain point, I noticed they were totally distant.” Thorkelson recalls the woman sitting at the Legion one night looking pale and upset. “I remember thinking, ‘She does not look okay.’” She now berates herself for not having asked what was wrong.

In the fall of 2015, long after the affair had ended, the woman reached out to instructors with an allegation about Galloway that shocked them—the same allegation that would later trigger Galloway’s breakdown in Ohio. When a former creative-writing student learned of the charge, she canvassed the department, asking whether others knew of any inappropriate behaviour from Galloway, and more complainants emerged. “People who didn’t like him came forward,” Alison says. Faculty members reportedly pushed for action.

In the wake of the Ghomeshi scandal, institutions that grant male employees the presumption of innocence risk looking as if they’re enabling abusers. More than half a million sexual assaults occur each year in Canada, but only a fraction result in charges against the attacker. This, for victims’ rights activists, is the result of a judicial system that too often puts the burden of proof squarely on the victim. Officials are now more inclined to trust the odds that the allegations are true—a core principle of the “Believe Women” movement—and act before they find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. UBC suspended Galloway within days. Eight months later—despite his having been largely exonerated by the report it commissioned—he was fired.

Galloway has reportedly filed a grievance against UBC and has been warned that commenting on any aspect of his case would violate a confidentiality agreement that he signed. But while he may not be able to defend himself, his friends can argue on his behalf—and do.

They insist that they are not judging the complainants, but simply questioning the process. According to a close friend, many of the complaints filed were petty: one male faculty member allegedly groused that Galloway didn’t respect poetry; another objected to his enthusiasm for a Grumpy Cat meme on a Facebook post. Supporters also say that by keeping the details of Galloway’s suspension and firing vague, UBC created an environment ripe for innuendo. “Everyone was quite stunned that it was handled in this public way,” says Nancy Holmes, an associate professor in the creative-studies department based at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

“There was a sense that this was unheard of and really quite unusual,” says Holmes. “It was very difficult for a faculty member to not think he must have done something terrible—involving violence or theft—because you don’t fire people for no reason. And yet what I have heard since is that it was an affair with a student. That is a breach of trust. That should not happen. But, you know, it just seems amazing to me that a faculty member at UBC would be fired for that reason.”

Was Galloway a harasser? Alison, who attended his Christmas parties, never saw any signs of inappropriate behaviour. “He’s awkward, goofy—nothing I would consider flirty,” she says. Another female writer agrees. “Steve has an exuberant sense of humour, but he is not raunchy—especially not around students.” Indeed, sources say Boyd could find no evidence that Galloway had created a sexualized environment.

Sources also say that Galloway’s former lover—the woman associated with the most serious claim—changed the nature of her allegations several times during the investigation. Boyd ultimately determined that her claims could not be substantiated. The same woman also brought other complaints to Boyd later in the investigation. Boyd dismissed those as well. And that slap? Galloway’s friends explain that the complainant was a physical person who liked to push and punch Galloway. At one point, she slapped him a little too hard, and he jokingly warned, “Some time after you graduate, I’m going to slap you back.” And he did.

UBC has defamed Steven Galloway,” contends Reid. “They brought in a one-person judge and jury to investigate a case which was never legal—no BC police report has been filed. They betrayed Galloway’s constitutional rights, and that should alarm everyone. To be alarmed by that fact doesn’t betray the alleged victims. It’s not about picking sides; it’s about justice. Complainants have been given an outlet by the media to voice anonymous accusations that amount to nothing more than character assassination. What’s especially confusing is that what’s been revealed makes Galloway seem like a jerk—not someone who has committed criminal offences.”

Reid argues that because of how UBC has handled this situation—and because of a cultural climate of despair over a legal system that fails to convict abusers—many now see Galloway as a predator who escaped justice. “UBC has stated that their trust in Galloway has been broken and that’s why they terminated him, which is their right,” says Reid. “But why dangle this in front of the public, allowing slander to be perpetuated? Fire him and move on. Instead, they publicly hanged him.”

The witnesses and complainants, too, feel slighted by the process. Flegg was under the impression that Galloway would not see her written statement. However, Jude Tate, who was then the special advisor to UBC’s provost, later warned her that Galloway would have access to it. “In accordance with the principles of procedural fairness,” Tate wrote in an email to her, “your entire statement as well as your identity will be revealed. Since that may not have been clear at the time of your interview, I wanted to ensure that you are aware the investigation will now be broadened to include your complaint.” (Complainants and witnesses, however, will not be able to examine documents related to his own testimony.)

One witness was so rattled by Boyd’s investigation that she hired a lawyer. “She was being asked about her thoughts on the ‘Believe Women’ movement,” says Flegg. “Questions clearly intended to discredit her as a witness, and throw out her complaint.” Flegg also wishes the university had come out in support of the students involved, who had been advised not to speak with the media. “You had faculty attacking their own students and attempting to discredit them publicly.”

UBC has stated that it also had reasons for firing Galloway that were unrelated to the investigation, but it did not specify what they were. For her part, Thorkelson has no doubt that his dismissal was warranted, if not long overdue. “The experience of the main complainant was real, as far as I am concerned,” she says. “I believe her, because I saw the way he played with people, and the way he could be controlling and cruel, and the kind of power he wanted to have.”

Friends, on the other hand, believe that if the complaints—and Boyd’s conclusions about them—were made public, Galloway would be absolved. But would he? A generation ago, teacher-student trysts might not have been seen as a problem. (And, indeed, Andreas Schroeder has written that “the practice of professors sleeping with students” was “quite widespread” in the early days of the UBC program.) But cultural attitudes have since shifted.

In the meantime, Galloway’s firing has created a climate of fear. “There’s such a tense atmosphere on campus right now,” says a female student currently enrolled in the program Galloway once led. “Nobody wants to say something and realize later that you are defending something you know nothing about.”

This appeared in the November 2016 issue.
* An earlier version of this article misidentified Kevin Chong as someone who publicly criticized UBC’s management of the Galloway case. The article also misidentified Flegg as being present when Galloway slapped a student. The Walrus regrets these errors.

Kerry Gold
Kerry Gold (@Goldiein604) reports on real estate for the Globe and Mail.
Byron Eggenschwiler
Byron Eggenschwiler has done artwork for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and GQ.