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UMass to launch new guidelines to combat sexual assault

  • University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, pictured in 2014, earlier this month announced new policies the flagship campus will take to combat sexual assault and sexual violence on campus. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2018

AMHERST — In response to a campaign led by a group of graduate students, the University of Massachusetts Amherst will launch a series of policy changes at the start of the upcoming school year that officials believe will better address issues of sexual assault and sexual violence on campus.

The changes, proposed by a special task force over the last year organized by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, include more stringent policies, training and continued dialogue.

“The conversation was initiated in large part due to the concerns raised by graduate students over the past year, but these are issues that really connect to everybody in the campus community,” UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said.

The Graduate Women in STEM, or GWIS, have documented a heightened rate of sexual harassment in their academic workplace at UMass. Over the last five years, university officials have investigated 21 sexual harassment or misconduct complaints filed by graduate students against faculty and staff, according to figures obtained by the Gazette. And last month, UMass announced a new policy barring consensual sexual relationships between graduate students and faculty.

“There is a perception that people are very immune to consequences when they abuse their power and are engaged in sexual violence or harassment with their students,” said Joelle Labastide, a biophysics postdoctoral research fellow and a founder and co-chair of the Graduate Women in STEM. “The perception that these professors are very well protected and very untouchable is detrimental to a student’s willing to report what has happened.”

A July 10 statement posted on UMass Amherst’s website shares some initial findings of the task force and responds to many of the complaints cited by members of Graduate Women in STEM. Three co-chairs of the GWIS were members of the task force — Labastide, Christie Ellis and Raquel Bryant.

“I think we made huge strides together because of the openness of that communication and the frequency,” Labastide said of their work over the last few months.

One issue the task force wants to address is the troubling trend of educators accused of sexual assault moving to new institutions without a record of their conduct. Requiring new employees to sign release forms giving UMass access to reports of their conduct at prior jobs is one potential solution proposed by a member of the task force.

“You see professors moving from university to university on their academic merit but with no consequences for their behavior,” Labastide said. “So you get this whisper network of students warning each other of particular people.”

The university said it will updated its Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment, and Related Interpersonal Violence and revise the reporting process. Subbaswamy also suggested in the July 10 statement adding a question to the standard application about whether educators had every faced prior disciplinary action.

According to the statement, the university is also working to “develop supervisory and mentorship guidelines that more effectively delineate the roles and responsibilities of graduate faculty on supervision.”

The university’s goal in releasing the statement over the summer, Blaguszewski said, is to lay out their policy intentions and be ready to implement them once students return in the fall.

Overall, Labastide said she was pleased with the response from the university so far, especially by administrators’ willingness to participate in a set of workshops and a town hall-style discussion in October.

“We felt heard and respected in that conversation and we think more collaborations of that type will serve the university well,” Labastide said. “Conversations of that depth and nature with people on important topics, with people that can influence those things and make changes is invaluable.”

Blaguszewski pointed out that the sexual assault problems plaguing the university’s STEM department are not unique, but widespread throughout the country and the academia.

“I was there that evening and I was very impressed with how the students organized the event,” said Blaguszewski, referring to the town hall event last fall. “They helped us really engage in a direct and constructive dialogue.”

Labastide also helps edit the group’s quarterly magazine that last year published a special edition titled “Broken Silence” dedicated to sharing women’s stories of sexual assault within UMass’s STEM departments.

“We had basically collected a bunch of writing prompts that we sent out to the greater UMass community, mostly about people in STEM disciplines,” Labastide said. “It really tells the story about the power dynamics that exist and the relationship between grad students and their supervisors professors, academic advisers and the fact that the nature of these relationships is so amorphous and built on mutual trust and assumption of good intentions.”

Tricia Serio, dean of the college of natural sciences and another member of the task force, wrote an article published last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education related to the graduate students’ fight. In her piece, Serio cites a 2015 report by the Westat research organization that found 5.9 percent of female undergraduates and 22.4 percent of female graduate students reported sexual harassment by a member of the faculty at 27 elite research universities.

“As a member of the professoriate, I am embarrassed by the behavior of some in my profession,” Serio wrote. “As an administrator, I am determined to do my own part to make the campus environment safer for our students.”

The unclear, often convoluted mechanisms of reporting and prosecuting sexual assault cases are enough to deter victims from coming forward, Labastide said, offering another opportunity for improvement. More accessible information about the rates of sexual assault on campus, and clear communication with students about their rights, she said, are potential positive steps.

“It’s very clear to us that there is a complete lack of information that is available to the students and the public in general,” Labastide said. 

Additional Title IX training, including Title IX criteria on class syllabi and thorough employee background checks were included as other ways the university hopes to improve the campus climate. Beginning in spring of 2019, the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity will also update training programs and advocacy.

“Foundational to our efforts to create, support and sustain a climate that enables all members of our campus community to succeed, is an emphasis on training or education on the context of sexual harassment in higher education,” Subbaswamy said in a statement.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.