Gaviota Velasco’s last year at Columbia left her feeling frustrated and alone.
During the summer of 2010, Velasco was working on her thesis in the earth and environmental engineering department when, she said, she was sexually harassed by a staff member in the department.
Velasco, who graduated with a master’s degree from the School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2011, said she reported the incident to Ombuds officer Marsha Wagner before being redirected to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which handles investigations against faculty and staff in cases of discrimination and harassment.
Velasco said she never received a response from EOAA and had to continue working with her harasser. Unable to handle the situation, she returned to her home in Mexico and completed her degree from afar.
The story told by Velasco and two students who supported her raises serious concerns about the University’s policy for responding to harassment complaints by students against employees.
‘Didn’t know what to do’
Velasco said she was “very close” with the staff member until she noticed that he was not assigning her work that he was assigning to other students. At that point, she decided that she wanted to distance herself from him.
One day, though, the staff member showed up at Velasco’s apartment and refused to leave for hours, despite her repeated requests.
“I felt like it was very uncomfortable being around him, so we stopped talking a lot,” Velasco said. “But we really had to talk because we were working together … I decided to talk to him again so we could have a nice work environment.”
The two met at a bar to discuss the situation.
“I just drank one margarita, and I don’t recall any other memory from that moment on,” she said. “The next thing I remember, he was there in my apartment, there with me in the bed, next to me.”
Soon after the incident, Velasco said, she went to the University’s Ombuds office, where she was advised to talk to the staff member and the professor overseeing her thesis work.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Velasco said. “I had to work, and I had to write my thesis, and I had to work next to him, and it was very hard.”
Wagner then tried to talk to Velasco’s professor about the situation, but the professor “really didn’t do anything,” Velasco said.
“I felt my professors weren’t helping me. I had to do everything alone,” she said. “I really wanted to finish. I felt I was not doing work enough. I had to hide from” the harasser.
Velasco was directed to Melissa Rooker, the executive director of EOAA and the University’s deputy Title IX coordinator for staff and faculty concerns.
Rooker “had me send an email and told me to write details and names, hour by hour and everything, and she said then she would interview [the harasser] and my professor, so that’s what I understood,” Velasco said. But Rooker never emailed her back, Velasco said.
Wagner declined to comment on specific cases.
“It’s in the University’s interest that it be regarded as a place where people are treated with respect and fairness and that the policies are followed,” Wagner said.
SEAS doctoral candidates Jen McAdoo and Naomi Klinghoffer, both of whom are also students in the earth and environmental engineering department, heard Velasco’s story and talked to EEE department chair Klaus Lackner while Velasco was in Mexico. McAdoo was later appointed as a student representative to University President Lee Bollinger’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault, a responsibility she has since transferred to Klinghoffer.
Klinghoffer said that Lackner was “very supportive.” But with Velasco back in Mexico, the two students were told that not much action could be taken.
“There’s a lot of formal procedure in place, and some could be improved, and a lot of it is fine,” Lackner said. “I think it’s more about a trust that needs to be there, that they’re willing to create an environment where people feel comfortable.”
In December of 2010, the staff member was let go by the University—although it’s unclear why—and Velasco returned to New York to finish her thesis. No one interviewed for this story would name the harasser.
For McAdoo and Klinghoffer, though, the story wasn’t over—after bringing Velasco’s story to Lackner, they were invited to meetings with several administrators, starting in April 2011. They hoped to address how the University handled Velasco’s case.
This was around the time that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent out what is known as a “Dear Colleague” letter, which reminded universities that they are required to meet federal Title IX standards for preventing and addressing sexual assault.
McAdoo said she was told by Melissa Tihinen, senior manager of the Office for Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, that the new federal policies would assuage the students’ concerns. But the University’s Employment Policies and Procedures on Discrimination and Harassment are separate from its Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students, meaning that the “Dear Colleague” letter led only to basic changes to the University’s employment policy.
“‘Dear Colleague’ focused on Title IX, which pertains to students. We added what we could for employees here, which includes duty to act, duty to report,” Rooker said.
McAdoo said that Rooker and other administrators would not discuss Velasco’s case with her and Klinghoffer due to privacy restrictions in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“It was difficult to communicate with them openly, because there was this whole issue of confidentiality that they were saying prevented them from talking to us,” Klinghoffer said. “I think that we were never really able to find a common ground or a way to talk about these issues that felt productive and helpful to us and yet also maintain their confidentiality commitments.”
“It’s a really difficult topic because what we’re actually saying is, under the heading of a federally mandated privacy protection, we’re not able to have a conversation that otherwise we would want to have,” Vice President of Student and Administrative Services Scott Wright said.
McAdoo and Klinghoffer asked administrators if they would meet with them and Velasco together, but they were told that this was not allowed.
Rooker declined to comment on the specifics of any case or meeting but said that “no one else is allowed to have a representative there, either from the respondent side or the complainant side … unless you’re a union representative.”
But despite what Rooker said, the University’s employment policy—which covers all sexual harassment cases that involve a faculty or staff member—does not explicitly prohibit the complainant from having an advocate present when meeting with administrators. It does prohibit legal counsel.
In the University’s policies for student-student sexual harassment cases, complainants and respondents are both allowed to have a supporter present throughout the process.
“I didn’t feel like we were working with them so much—I got a bit more of a feeling that we were working against each other,” Klinghoffer said.
Looking for solutions
Rooker and Tihinen provide training and workshops for student groups, classes, and faculty and staff, and they are currently working through each school and department at Columbia in accordance with the “Dear Colleague” letter. Since their efforts began in December, Rooker estimates that they have given more than 40 presentations and talked to about 1,200 employees.
Currently, though, no training has been done in the earth and environmental engineering department.
“I’m all for” training, Lackner said. “We actually wanted to have a whole faculty session, which only hasn’t happened because of scheduling issues. … But it’s important that people have an awareness.”
In addition to serving on the Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault, McAdoo has developed a public health campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault and the University’s policies, called SafetyNet. She hopes to encourage students to “stay in communication with the administration to make sure that your reports are being investigated.”
The University has also made further commitments to fighting sexual assault this year, Wright said.
After the “Dear Colleague” letter, the University created the Title IX investigator position in a trial capacity, and it was recently made a permanent position. Counseling and Psychological Services recently hired four new psychologists, and it assigned a liaison to each of Columbia’s schools to work directly with faculty this semester.
Still, after their experience looking into Velasco’s case, McAdoo and Klinghoffer are not sure that the changes will have much of an effect. McAdoo said she had an “internal battle about whether to stay” at school here, because of “the way that Columbia treats its students.”
“It’s strong in my mind when I think about how I feel about being a part of the Columbia community, and whether or not I would encourage other people to want to be involved in the Columbia community,” Klinghoffer said.
Rooker and Associate Provost for EOAA Susan Rieger said that they welcome discussions with any students who have concerns about the University’s policies or their implementation.
“We are really committed to these policies and to make sure that students have a place to go if they feel they are discriminated against or harassed by an employee. I think we work hard at doing that,” Rieger said.
Velasco, though, tells a different story.
“Marsha [Wagner] told me it was Columbia’s responsibility to make me feel like I had the right environment to work in,” Velasco said. “But it never happened.”