Monday, June 9, 2014

Sexual Harassment: One campus's response

MIT is not on the list of colleges and universities with current or recent sexual violence investigations conducted by the US Departments of Education and Justice.  Yet we have sexual violence on our campus and are committed to eliminating it.  Here is our story, from my perspective as a faculty leader.

More than a year ago, student sexual assault survivors came to speak with me seeking advice about how to reach faculty with their stories, as they felt it was important for faculty members to be aware of the problem of sexual violence so that they could be part of the solution.  I was the physics department head with no direct responsibility for student life but I helped the students to increase awareness among faculty.  They felt empowered to tell their stories.  Last fall, students began speaking about their experiences to housemasters (faculty members resident in dormitories) and others.  Telling one's story can be very difficult but helps others to see.

Last winter, a series of articles in our student newspaper from sexual assault survivors brought the issue to the forefront for our community.  This was happening at the same time as news reports of Title IX investigations were appearing almost daily, and the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was established.  The national media attention made it easier for students to be heard on our campus.  Giving voice to those who feel powerless is in my view one of the most important things leaders can do.

Our university President very quickly made a community-wide statement and he assigned the newly appointed Chancellor to make the subject of sexual assault a central priority.  She initiated a student survey on sexual violence to give us more data on the problem - the chief issue is underreporting of sexual violence.  Campuses that have more reported incidents are generally safer and better climates than those with fewer reports - because the victims feel empowered to come forward.  We have room for improvement on this front.

During the spring semester our Title IX Working Group worked on planning of training modules to bring us into compliance with the Campus SaVE Act.  We are going beyond the requirements of the law to educate new employees (including all new faculty) about our broad university harassment policy, the role that bystanders play in preventing many kinds of offenses, and the reporting responsibilities for supervisors.  We have read the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the accompanying FAQ of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

We now have implemented our own online training module for all new employees, are updating our student training, and are preparing training for current employees, including faculty.

Ending sexual harassment and violence requires a shift in culture.  Many people come to our universities from environments where sexual violence is tolerated and sometimes even condoned by prevailing standards, as we read in gruesome press accounts from the US and abroad.  In my view, what is most needed to shift the culture to eliminate sexual violence and harassment is a combination of clear messaging from the leadership and institutional policies and practices that are aligned with the message.  In short, we need to talk, walk, and walk the talk.  Achieving this requires leadership and sustained effort.

Sexual violence and sexual harassment happen not only in colleges and universities; they occur in professional societies,  even in their meetings.  Once again, clear messaging combined with policies and practices aligned with the message are crucial.  Achieving this alignment in the AAS and at our employers is a key goal of the CSWA.

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