A special commission assembled in the wake of sexual harassment allegations at the University of Rochester, which have resulted in an ongoing legal battle, issued it’s preliminary report on the current climate of the university and suggested a number of changes, some of which university officials said are already being made.
The 56-page report carried no surprises or bombshells, with the university president noting that many of its recommendations are already in motion.
The 56-page report is the first major product of The Commission on Women and Gender Equity since its establishment in October 2017. Its findings are the result of more than 100 interviews with students, staff, faculty and campus leaders, and more than 300 community-submitted responses, and highlighted 10 “key findings and major recommendations,” including:
- Improving training and informational resources available
- Incorporating restorative principles into the leadership approach
- Promoting common visions and goals across a decentralized structure
- Demonstrating a commitment to equity through adequate resources
- Clarifying, evaluating and improving policies and procedures
In many ways, the report acknowledges that while immediate action needs to be taken, implementing certain changes will be more challenging than others, especially those specific to university culture and climate.
“This report exists in a long legacy of discrimination and exclusion in academia and in a long line of diversity reports and climate surveys, some of which have not yet been addressed. We did not expect to solve all of these issues in eight months.” it reads.
One of the most actionable recommendations points to improving policies and procedures, “governing sexual harassment and misconduct, intimate relationships, disciplinary actions, the grievance process, and hiring,” which proved to play an integral part in the sexual harassment accusations against Brain and Cognitive Sciences professor Florian Jaeger, which resulted in an external investigation by former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Mary Jo White.
White’s investigation found that while Jaeger’s behavior was salacious at times, it did not violate university policy, and mostly vindicated him of the allegations; leaving many in the university to confront the question of what to do when personal morality and policy fail to align.
UR President Richard Feldman said that many components of the recommendation are already in motion.
“I was deeply impressed by the report. It was extremely thoughtful, comprehensive, they clearly did a lot of research,” said Feldman. “I think that one of the overriding reactions I had to it was that many of the things they called on us to do were the very things that we were already working on in the university and have already made progress on.”
Feldman said that just last week the Board of Trustees passed a new intimate relationships policy, which he said is one of the most restrictive he knows of among universities in the country. The university is also working to create a new chief diversity and inclusion officer position.
Still, at the center of the report is the issue of the prevalence of sexual harassment and misconduct in academia, which was one of the more recurring topics in community feedback.
“We heard from numerous individuals about their experiences, ranging from degrading comments heard in campus hallways to unwanted propositions from a professor or fellow student to outright sexual assault or stalking. Their memories were painful and the impact long lasting. We heard from current students, faculty, and staff as well as several alumni and former employees, some of whom left because of the impact of this experience,” it reads.
“In addition, we heard from many that the issues of harassment go far beyond those of a sexual nature but also include general bullying, disrespect and unprofessional conduct. Much of this behavior exists within the inherent power imbalances in many parts of the university.”
Celeste Kidd, one of the now nine former and current members of UR in litigation with the university over the handling of the Jaeger case, said the individual accounts in the report match the experiences raised by her and the other complainants, including those of retaliation.
“I am happy that they have improved policy recommendations, but in our view the policies and procedures of the university are meaningless when they are implemented by people who are eager to cover-up cases and avoid the bad press that comes with them,” said Kidd.
“Nearly everyone who was involved in trying to cover-up our case is still in their positions, and as long as that’s true, the students here aren’t safe.”
Kidd said that while the commission is doing valuable work, she wishes they would have further explored the university’s history of handling women’s issues, using quantitative evidence and looking into things like the number of women appointed to leadership positions.
“They could have tried to discern whether the increase in reports that President Feldman recently described was due to people being more comfortable coming forward, or instead U of R doing less to cover-up cases,” Kidd said.
“They could have worked to understand how and why Mary Jo White de-anonymized four witnesses from our department who complained of harassment. The commission could have taken a long, detailed look at the history of mishandling undergraduate assault here. I wish they had given the undergraduates and victims more of a voice.”
Moving forward, the commission is expected to work with the administration and community, to see that the recommendations are addressed. Although the initial report has been published, the feedback form will remain open.
Amy Lerner, associate professor of biomedical engineering and co-chair of the commission, said working on the commission has been rewarding, but challenging.
“We believe that the time has come for some serious changes at the university, and are cautiously optimistic that our message has been heard,” said Lerner. “I have been glad to have the chance to shed some light on just how important these issues are and to work with an outstanding team to try to find solutions that will lead to a more diverse and equitable community.”
Lerner’s co-chair, medical student Antoinette Esce, added that in conducting the report, she saw several areas of success on campus and that community feedback contributed numerous programs and ideas to build on.
“We’ve already heard from numerous community members offering support and suggestions,” said Esce. “I’m optimistic that the administration, Board of Trustees, and entire campus community will continue to work hard to make this campus a more equitable place for everyone — not just women.”
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