Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Campus Investigations of Assault-One Woman’s Story

We will call her Sara.  Though Sara is not her real name, her story is a familiar one.  It deals with assault on a college campus.  Was her incident handled properly?  You decide.

Sara was a good student, full of promise, and motivated to succeed.  She graduated from high school with honors and went straight to her local public university.  She enrolled in classes both fun and hard.  One that she seemed to struggle with was chemistry.  She had a dynamic professor and despite the difficulty of the class, she was still motivated to try and do well.  She spent time with the Teaching Assistant and was a regular at the professor’s office hours. 

The professor said that he was very impressed with her communication skills and told her about a program that he was an advisor for.  It was science related and right up her alley.  She wanted to become involved immediately.  In addition to having the professor as an instructor, he also became her boss, as she was chosen to head up the program that he advised.  She was now not only a student but an instructor and employee of the university she attended.  These were big shoes to fill as an undergraduate.  Nevertheless, Sara did it was gusto, grace, and determination. 

After a time, her professor/boss starting making inappropriate comments about her appearance.  He would tell her that she looked good in skirts and he would prefer it if she wore them more often.  He would be seen frequently walking past her office, checking to see if she was there.  He continued to make uncomfortable comments about her appearance.  The first escalation of action from the professor was during his office hours.  She went to talk to him about her last exam and score.  She knew it was going to tank her grade.  After they talked and he told her not to worry, she headed out of his office.  As she walked out, he groped her butt.  In another scary incident, he pinned her into a corner and rubbed up against her.  In another incident, he asked her to come spend the night at his house because he knew her commute to school was really long. 

You have to wonder why she didn’t call the professor out.  You have to wonder why she didn’t tell him to back off.  You have to wonder want her rational was.  After talking with her, it was pretty simple.  Sara wanted to do well at the university.  She wanted to succeed in her classes, even the hard ones.  Since this professor was her boss and her instructor, she thought it best not to rock the boat and make waves.  She didn’t want her grade or job affected.  She also knew that this professor was popular, tenured, and semi-famous.  It was her word against his.  Finally, she thought that she could handle it and that what was happening wasn’t a big deal because she hadn’t actually been raped. 

She passed her chemistry classes with an average grade and continued to head the program.  One day that all changed for her.  One of her students came in to talk to her.  This student told her that the same professor she once had was acting inappropriately with her now.  This student relayed what was happening to her and it mirrored Sara’s same experiences to the letter.  Now Sara was pissed.  She thought she could handle her own situation but her student was visibly shaken, scared, and felt very alone.  Sara felt she needed to defend her student. 

So Sara and her student went to the Ombudsman on campus.  This person is there specifically to address issues such as these.  The Ombudsman was a conflict resolver.  Sara and her student spend hours filling out paperwork detailing each and every incident they had experienced.  It was emotional, time-consuming, and embarrassing.  After that was all done, the Ombudsman sat down with Sara and her student.  She told both of them that this was not the first time they had been privy to a report of this nature from this same professor.  What did that mean?  Sara did the math; at least one other student was treated inappropriately by this professor.  That makes the total at least 3!  To make matters worse, the Ombudsman said that she knew of at least 2 other people that had filed with her office against the same professor.  So the total became 4!  Yet, this man was still teaching at this university.  He had been for over 30 years. 

After these revelations, both Sara and her student were asked to meet with the campus attorney’s office separately.  They were also instructed to not discuss what each meeting was about with each other.  Sara told me that in her meeting, the attorney for the university asked if she wanted to file suit.  When she said that she was unsure what that would be like, how it would affect her work, and how it would look when the matter went public, the attorney said a suit would be difficult to follow through with.  He asked Sara what she wanted out of the whole situation.  Sara, in so many words, said she wanted to have the professor punished for what he did, maybe even fired.  After the meeting Sara went home to think about what happened.  She got a call a few days later saying that she needed to head back to the Ombudsman’s office.

When Sara arrived, she was told that a phone conference had been set up between the Chair of the Chemistry Department, her, and the Ombudsman.  So she sat down and had to have a phone conversation with the Chair.  He knew her name, who she was, and was well aware of the program that she ran for his department.  The Chair told her that he had read the reports and was up to date on the timeline of events.  He asked her what she wanted.  Sara said the same thing that she had told the university attorney.  Sara said the Chair’s response made her sick.  He told her that she needed to be mindful that this professor came from a different era when this type of behavior was acceptable.  The Chair told her that she needed to be mindful of what she wore to school, so as to not elicit a response from the professor.  Further, he told her that she should be proud that someone thought she was beautiful.  The Chair said that the only way that this could truly end was if she stopped working for the program.  After some small-talk Sara realized this was a hopeless situation.

She went back to her job, buried herself in work, and avoided the professor at all costs.  It was her way of not letting him win by pushing/pressuring her out of her job.  Sara got an email from her former student a few months later.  It stated that she no longer felt safe at the university, let alone as a chemistry major.  She transferred home and was never heard from again.

This isn’t a case of rape or murder.  Sara’s parents aren’t struggling like the parents of Morgan Harrington, who disappeared during a Metallica concert in Charlottesville.  It isn’t as big as Kathryn’s Law.  Sara isn’t Kathryn Russell, a rape victim from the University of Virginia whose case was brushed aside by campus police.  What it is however, is a failing of our system to protect its citizens.  It is a prime example of how a university with all its power and pull can push the wronged female student to feeling like it was her fault.  It is an example of how a university changed a chemistry major’s life by forcing her to transfer to another school.  Finally, it is a fine example of how the system protects the offender.  The chemistry professor that assaulted at least 4 students continues to teach at the university to this day.

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