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Sexual harassment of graduate students by faculty is a national problem

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University of Wisconsin-Madison’s anonymous complaints of sexual harassment often rest on “institutional memory” and there is no actual requirement in place to document them, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

There are two channels for sexual harassment reports at the university. Students and employees can file formal complaints, which results in an investigation by the Title IX coordinator’s office, or they can report through an informal resolution that lets accusers remain anonymous but does not allow the university to mete out more severe penalties.

UW-Madison officials told the Wisconsin State Journal that the university is working on clearer policies for both of these processes, but confirmed that there is no policy in place requiring employees to track anonymous complaints.

The lack of a formal system to track anonymous sexual harassment complaints is particularly troublesome given the number of complaints made against faculty members by co-workers or students at UW-Masison. It’s fairly common for female graduate students at the university to experience sexual harassment from faculty members. A 2015 survey on sexual misconduct found that of those women who experienced harassment, 22.2 percent reported that their harasser was a faculty member at UW-Madison.

Experts interviewed by the Wisconsin State Journal — Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, and Saunie Schuster, a co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators — said this is big problem for universities. Universities may not know that a faculty member is a serial harasser if they haven’t recorded multiple complaints, and the institution would be a legal target for sexual harassment victims.

The university responded to the Journal and said it is in the process of developing a system to record these allegations.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is hardly alone, however. Universities across the country have poor policies to address harassers in their university systems, even if that person has harassed people multiple times. Some universities may actively protect faculty who are accused of harassment.

In March 2015, Sujit Choudhry, the dean at UC Berkeley School of Law, was accused of harassment by his executive assistant. Berkeley investigators found that he had in fact harassed his assistant Tyann Sorrell, but in April of this year, the university reached a deal with him anyway, allowing him to receive research funding, keep tenure, and avoid any charges. His pay was reduced 10 percent and he had to apologize to Sorrell, but even with his pay cut, he made $373,500 annually.

Soon after the university reached this deal, experts on Title IX policy told ThinkProgress that the Choudhry deal is fairly common, because universities tend to identify more with the alleged harasser than the victim. In many cases, faculty members have more resources than the victim, and could drag out a lawsuit against the university after it metes out serious disciplinary consequences.

And too often, serial harassers are allowed to continue their harassment. In March, the Associated Press looked at 112 cases from January 2013 to April 2016 at nine campuses in the University of California system. The investigation found that rumors about the accused faculty circulated for years until universities took any kind of action  and that even after they did so, many faculty members kept their jobs.

The issue of faculty harassment of graduate students is a national one, and universities will have to adjust their policies if they’re going to address it. In 2016, researchers who surveyed 525 graduate students on sexual and gender-based harassment found that 38 percent of female participants and 23.4 percent of male participants self-reported that they had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

More recent research shows that faculty harassers are often serial harassers and engage in serious forms of harassment such as sexual assault. According to a study released in July, “A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,” most harassers studied have physically rather than verbally harassed students. Some faculty harassers exhibited “domestic-abuse like behaviors.” Over half of the faculty cases studied — 53 percent — were alleged to have participated in serial harassment.

Graduate students hope to secure protection from harassment as they fight for their labor rights. Graduate students say that union representation and collective bargaining will help them get contracts that cover issues of sexual harassment.

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