The trouble with Steven Galloway

By David Charbonneau
December 8, 2016 - 12:30pm

KAMLOOPS — Award-winning Kamloops author Steven Galloway has problems of his own making. They could have been avoided.

Galloway was raised in Kamloops and attended the University College of the Cariboo in the 1990s before it became Thompson Rivers University; where I taught for twenty years.

Galloway is best known for his 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo which sold 700,000 copies, was translated into twenty languages, and had film options. His career took off and he became chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia on July 1, 2015.

A year ago, Professor Galloway was dismissed from the writing program and has since been fired by UBC, which cited “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members (Globe and Mail, June 22, 2016)”

His firing set off a storm in Canadian literary circles. University of Victoria faculty of the Writing department signed a letter critical of the firing process, a letter also signed by literary heavyweights such as Margaret Atwood. UBC’s faculty association said it has serious concerns with the administration’s “misleading public and private comments regarding Professor Galloway (Globe and Mail, June 22, 2016.)”

Reporter Kerry Gold interviewed students and faculty close to Galloway in her feature-length article in The Walrus (December, 2016). Many liked him, writes Gold:

“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.”

Some complainants didn’t find him that way:

“Those complainants – including former students – allege Mr. Galloway fostered a sexualized atmosphere, drank regularly with students and played favourites – bringing some students into his inner circle while casting others out (Globe and Mail, June 22, 2016.)”

Gold describes some of the drinking that occurred:

“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.’”

One night was particularly rowdy when Galloway and students met after graduation at a canteen called the Legion, continues Gold:

“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.”

Partying with students is a bad idea. As a high school teacher and later an instructor at TRU, my policy was never to date or revel with students. The obvious problem is the power differential. Teachers have the power to promote students and advance their careers.

“But he also faced more troubling accusations,” adds Gold, “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.’”

For me, I only had to remind myself that I had been placed in a position of trust: the betrayal of which would diminish me and my profession, and would harm my students.