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UMass grad students put officials on spot on issues of sexual harassment

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst officials take part in a town hall event Thursday on what graduate students say is an epidemic of sexual abuse and harassment in science, technology, engineering and math departments on campus. From left, college of engineering dean Tim Anderson, college of natural sciences dean Tricia Serio, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, graduate school dean Barbara Krauthamer and acting Provost John McCarthy. DUSTY CHRISTENSEN



@dustyc123
Thursday, October 19, 2017

AMHERST — Top University of Massachusetts officials were on hand Oct. 12 for tough questions at a town hall event regarding what graduate students say is an epidemic of sexual abuse and harassment in science, technology, engineering and math departments on campus.

The group Graduate Women in STEM, or GWIS, organized the event as part of its “Safe at Work” campaign against sexual violence. GWIS has focused its campaign on sexual violence after last month releasing a troubling report detailing women’s stories of abuse at the university, and how power imbalances and fears of retaliation or damaged academic progress for reporting wrongdoing fueled that misconduct.

On the panel were Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, college of engineering dean Tim Anderson, college of natural sciences dean Tricia Serio, graduate school dean Barbara Krauthamer and acting Provost John McCarthy.

GWIS organizers, being the technology experts they are, set up a live polling system on the lecture hall’s projectors for more than 100 audience members to provide and see immediate feedback to the administrators’ responses.

It was those direct responses appearing on the room’s screens that had Subbaswamy squirming in his seat early in the program, when he was asked to provide examples of any professors who have ever been found guilty of sexual misconduct at the university, and what the consequences were.

“It has been a wake-up call for the campus,” Subbaswamy said of the organization’s report, beginning his answer broadly by talking about how the university is focusing campus climate, then delving into the minutiae of the formal complaint system. “It gets quickly very complicated.”

His failure to immediately answer the question on hand prompted critical responses on the screen: “filibustering,” “has a speech writer.”

The chancellor eventually provided an indirect answer, saying that around 32 formal and informal complaints have been brought against faculty since 2012.

Workshops

“They don’t know that we’re mad,” geoscience doctoral student and GWIS co-chair Raquel Bryant said after the panel when asked about the live feedback. This, she said, was a way for them to see that, but in a productive way that seeks solutions.

Before the town hall, refreshments and introductions were followed by three simultaneous workshops meant to give graduate students the tools to help combat sexual violence. The break-out sessions were titled “know your rights,” “peer defense” and “male allyship.”

“My job is to basically coordinate the inclusion of men in a space where we can be allies to women in STEM and in general,” said Edwin Murenzi, a doctoral student in molecular and cell biology and the male allyship workshop leader.

In another workshop, biophysics postdoctoral research fellow and GWIS co-chair Joelle Labastide co-taught “peer defense” — a strategy for helping colleagues in trouble that goes beyond active bystander training by recognizing power and privilege imbalances.

Tackling questions like what consent looks like across power dynamics, the workshop aimed to provide graduate students, staff and faculty alike with ways to avoid being actively or passively complicit in sexual violence. As an example of a strategy, Labastide recommended taking contemporaneous notes when a person sees a questionable situation arise, so that accusations of sexual violence can be backed by documentation.

“There are lots of ways we can help each other that don’t put us directly in the line of fire,” Labastide said.

Trouble Mandeson, a grants and contracts coordinator in the polymer science and engineering department, was one of the staff members in attendance at the peer defense workshop. She said she was there to learn to talk to men at the university who don’t think sexual violence is a big issue on campus.

“There’s a lot of denial happening there,” she said of her department’s response to the issues raised by GWIS. “The silence is deafening.”

On the spot

Department heads and university officials were put on the spot, however, when it came time for the town hall. Some of the questions included how charges of sexual harassment against a professor affect the tenure process, where students can go for cheap or free legal counsel if they bring a lawsuit and how departments vet job candidates for past impropriety.

When asked about specific policies to help students immediately, Serio, the dean of natural sciences, mentioned plans in motion to make sure every department has an established, published procedure for graduate students to change advisers should problems emerge. Serio and other officials have also been planning a special retreat with GWIS to explore measures to improve the campus climate.

Subbaswamy said that since 1997, there have been three failed attempts to implement a consensual relationship policy — for example, requirements to disclose when there is a relationship between someone in authority over another person.

“And we’re restarting it,” he said. “This is ridiculous — we’ve got to adopt something.”

When asked what they learned from the GWIS report on sexual violence in UMass STEM, administrators all expressed their sadness and horror at how prevalent those abuses apparently are at the university.

“When I read it I was taken aback,” Anderson said. “It changed me.”

Bryant, who was co-moderating the panel, responded with a call to give the entire university that same experience administrators had when reading the report.

“I work in a lab where the strongest acid is acetic acid, and I had to sit through, like, fire training and wearing my gloves and all that stuff,” Bryant said to the panel. “Where is that effort to incorporate narratives like this, or stories like this, into that kind of health and safety training? I learned how to put out fire, but I didn’t learn about these statistics or learn about these stories.”

Bryant told the Gazette that one purpose of the panel was to rebuild trust between administrators and distrustful students, so that they can be effective collaborators in the struggle against sexual violence. In that light, she put to the school officials the opportunity to highlight themselves as a member of the administration who is open to having discussions and changing an entrenched culture.

“We’re here,” acting Provost McCarthy said, drawing praise from the organizers for opening up dialogue.

As administrators answered that question, the largest words of feedback on the screens above echoed the organizers’ response to the event afterward: “first step.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.