Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Anonymous Open Letter to the UO Senate from a Graduate Student



Update 1: My Op-Ed piece, Required reporting at UO undermines autonomy, academic freedom and inequality, published by the UO Daily Emerald, May 25, 2016

Update 2: Professor Freyd created Compelled Disclosure, a website compilation of articles and resources on these issues. 

Update 3: As of June 14, 2016, this blog post has received 700 views. Please do share as you further the conversation of autonomy, human rights, and equality in the work to address sexual violence and other forms of discrimination on college campuses and beyond. 

Update 4: As of July 31, 2016, this blog post has received 803 views. 

Though the national conversation centers around sexual violence and harassment, some universities (e.g., University of Oregon) seem to still clump sexual violence and harassment with other forms of discrimination, such as racism, into one required reporting policy. 

Regardless of the scope, the decisions around university required reporting policies must guard against further discrimination. Women and minorities are most likely to be victimized and thus, women and minorities are most likely to be affected by such policies. 

Deliberate, consistent effort on the part of the decision-makers is required to not let the same societal dynamics that put women and minorities at risk for victimization dominant how universities address such victimization (e.g., through infantilizing adult women and minorities via large-scale forced reporting). 

Update 5: As of September 17, 2016, this blog post has received 902 views. 

Update 6: As of October 16, 2016, this blog post has received 1,002 views. 

Update 7: As of December 1, 2016, this blog post has received 1,229 views.

The UO Senate unanimously passed a new proposed required reporting policy for sexual violence victimization specifically. According to an article in Eugene Weekly, the proposed policy dictates that most faculty or staff would follow the wishes of the student to report or not. According to this same article, UO President Michael Schill has until January 15, 2017 to decide to accept the policy, reject the policy, or request revisions. 

Update 8: As of May 24, 2017, this blog post has received over 3,500 views. 

This story ends with wonderful news: A few days ago, UO President Schill signed the new policy, which will be enacted September 2017

I first published the below open letter at the end of April 2016. Now, over one year later, I will always remember the grit, fight, and perseverance of so many. Together, we changed the minds of those who truly believed that a survivor-centered policy was impossible in a university context. 

As a survivor, I am grateful. 

As a woman of color, I hope that a similar policy will be constructed regarding all other forms of discrimination.





>>>>>>


Dear University of Oregon Senate,

I am writing this letter anonymously because, as a graduate student, I fear retaliation for my dissent on this issue. It is disconcerting that at an institution of higher education—where rigorous discourse about difficult topics should be normative—I fear for attacks on my personhood and my credibility as a burgeoning professional. However, it is precisely this fear that motivated me to pursue this open letter, albeit anonymously.

If I am so afraid to raise a topic like this, imagine my fear if I had just been discriminated against or raped? 

I am very concerned about the proposed Required Reporting Policy that is scheduled for a UO Senate vote on May 11, 2016.

The central components of the policy relate to requiring reporting regarding sexual violence and harassment (hereafter referred to as sexual violence) and discrimination based on being a member of a protected class (hereafter referred to as discrimination).

Presumably, the goals of the proposed policy are good ones: to support victims and survivors of sexual violence and discrimination and to create a safer and equitable campus.

However, the main tenets of the policy itself are antithetical to these goals, and I foresee many negative outcomes if this policy were enacted, including: silencing reports; rupturing academic relationships between students and faculty/staff; diminishing academic freedom; and further oppressing minority students.

I will address each of these issues in this letter (some similar points have been made by Professor Freyd in her article, The Problem with "Required Reporting" Rules for Sexual Violence on Campus). 

Silencing Reports

To assume that all who experience sexual violence and discrimination would want action taken when they first disclose is to homogenize a diverse set of individuals. Though undoubtedly some students would like action taken upon first disclosure, there are many – probably the majority in fact – who first disclose for emotional reasons, such as to get emotional support and validation from someone they trust. If that first discussion goes well, it may lead individuals to want to take some sort of action. Nevertheless, for many people, that first discussion is not about doing anything external, it is about meeting emotional needs, like simply being heard.

If “any information received”, as the proposed policy states, is required to be disclosed to an official who is likely a stranger to the student (regardless of whether that person is a confidential reporter), then many students will likely choose not to disclose at all. 

Sexual Violence

Under the current policy, we know that 90% of survivors of sexual violence do not disclose. The assumption that more individuals would disclose upon removing further autonomy from survivors—forgive me—is foolish. Sexual violence specifically removes a survivor’s agency. In the response to sexual violence, continued removal by virtue of reporting “any information received” regardless of the survivor’s wishes is a harmful, institutionalized harm. A survivor’s decision then not to disclose—in order to retain autonomy—means that the institution, and all the caring actors in it, is unable to provide help to the survivor.

Survivors have the right to dictate how their information is used, including who it is shared with. It is the institution that must accommodate the needs of survivors. It is only within a rape culture where we would demand that survivors change to adjust to a status quo that devalues their agency, autonomy, and liberty. 

            Discrimination

Discrimination (unrelated to sexual violence or harassment) can take many forms. For clarity, I use racial discrimination as an example.

Imagine being a student of color who is racially discriminated against at UO, a predominantly White university. 

The proposed policy provides this student with two options:

  1. Disclose what you experienced to someone you trust—maybe a faculty member of color—and then “any information received” is passed along regardless of your wishes to the very system that perpetrated the discriminatory harm in the first place.
  2. Do not disclose for fear of your information being given to strangers who are part of a university system that you do not trust; subsequently, deal with the discrimination alone, thus likely having an impact on your academic achievement and mental health.
Rupturing Academic Relationships Between Students and Faculty/Staff

As a graduate student, I know just how important the relationship with my advisor is to my academic development, my professional opportunities, and my personal wellness. I would guess that many undergraduates feel similarly about some of their academic advisors, professors, and mentors.

If I knew that my advisor would be required to share details I disclosed about something so personal and harmful as sexual violence and discrimination, I would not disclose that information to my close mentor. 

That means that I would suffer in silence—potentially suffering from one of the many mental health outcomes that are linked with sexual violence and discrimination. My advisor would have no idea why my affect had changed or why I seemed less motivated. I would not be able to explain. My advisor would not be able to help me. That has concrete negative implications for my relationship with my advisor, my career trajectory (e.g., my advisor might deem me as not a hard worker, as opposed to a survivor of violence), and my academic achievement. 

Put simply, I would have a secret I was keeping from my advisor and this would do damage to our relationship and my career.

If for some reason I had been so bold as to disclose the harm I experienced to my advisor, I can only fathom the betrayal I would feel if my advisor took my private information—related to sexual violence or discrimination—and disclosed it to an ‘official’ stranger. The harm is so profound that I cannot put words to it.

The proposed policy then provides two options for all students who experience sexual violence or discrimination and do not want their information disclosed further:

  1. Do not disclose, thus damaging your relationship with your advisor and thus your education and future career—through silence
  2. Disclose to your advisor, thus damaging your relationship with your advisor and thus your education and future career—through perceived betrayal by your advisor
Diminishing Academic Freedom

Though the proposed policy states the opposite (with no supporting evidence), the content of the policy itself is an attack on academic freedom. As it stands, the proposed policy places limits on what faculty and staff can teach and discuss, while simultaneously imposing a norm of silence with their students.

A personification of this silencing norm is as follows. Prefacing a classroom discussion, a faculty member states: “We will be engaging in a critically thinking discussion about rape. I would like you to engage with your full selves in this discussion, as it has implications for academic, personal, and societal growth. However, beware that if you disclose any personal experience, I am required to report that to official sources regardless of your wishes.”

Such policies, including the proposed policy, are antithetical to academic inquiry and learning, while simultaneously communicating to students that part of their experience and themselves are not welcome in the academy.

Oppressing Minority Students

Through its cultural insensitivity, this policy disproportionately harms minorities, who are, by definition, the individuals who can be discriminated against based on being a member of a protected class. Furthermore, due to societal inequality, required reporting of sexual violence will not only stomp on the liberties of an individual as a survivor, but is also an oppressive move from a predominantly White university to force minority students to have their private information disclosed.

Amidst the high-profile battles for equality on college campuses across the nation—including those currently occurring at this university—it would be a shame if the UO enacted a policy that was oppressive for diverse minority students.


What Are The Alternatives?

The positive outcomes for which the proposed policy is perhaps attempting to address could be achieved in a multitude of other avenues. Avenues that would still hold faculty and staff accountable for addressing both sexual violence and discrimination on campus. Furthermore, these other avenues would exclude the measurable harm detailed above.

Such avenues include:
1.     educating faculty/staff about: Title IX; sexual violence; harm of poor interpersonal and institutional responses on survivors’ mental health; discrimination of other forms; and related laws to the latter types of discrimination
2.     educating faculty/staff about appropriate, interpersonal ways to respond well to disclosure
3.     educating faculty/staff about on-campus and off-campus resources that could be provided to students, if that is in accordance with students’ wishes
4.     educating faculty/staff of the existence of differential life experiences and needs of some students based on experiencing inequality, oppression, and discrimination
5.     requiring that if a student wants to move a case forward, the faculty/staff member must oblige, taking the information the student consents to sharing to an official source, as outlined in the proposed policy
6.     requiring that faculty/staff do not share any information with any official sources without the student’s explicit and informed consent
Importance of Including Diverse Perspectives

Despite the fact that this policy affects so many, there is no indication to me that concrete efforts were made to seek, obtain, and share the perspectives of those individuals likely most affected by the proposed policy.

Just some of the stakeholders that should be meaningfully consulted with:
  1. The 90% of survivors of sexual violence who do not disclose
  2. Undergraduate students
  3. Graduate students
  4. Instructors who teach courses on the subject of sexual violence and/or discrimination
  5. Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence (CMAE)
  6. Alliance of Graduate Students for Diversity
  7. Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF)
  8. Many others who are disempowered
My Fear of Retaliation

I want to close this open letter the same way it began: with vulnerability.

I chose to write this letter anonymously because I was too afraid of the emotional toll that retaliatory ad hominem attacks would have on me as a graduate student. That fact should speak volumes to a university that is contemplating requiring reporting of issues as sensitive, private, and harmful as sexual violence and discrimination. 

If it were required of me to have my identity released in order to relay my concerns, I would have been frightened into silence.

Please imagine the exacerbated chilling effect that is likely to occur for many students who would be contemplating disclosing rape, for instance, under this proposed policy.

I plead that those in positions of power over this issue will please understand the broad implications of such a policy (silencing reports; rupturing academic relationships between students and faculty/staff; diminishing academic freedom; and oppressing minority students).

The University of Oregon can and must address sexual violence and discrimination. However, we can do it in a way that: centers students who experience sexual violence and/or discrimination; fosters academic achievement; protects academic freedom; and is not oppressive of minorities.

Sincerely, 

A UO Graduate Student