Part II: The EOAA
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Written by Gavrielle Jacobovitz

2 The EOAA The EOAA

Part II: The EOAA

‘Could This Be You?’

When the EOAA called Helen, a graduate student in the neurobiology and behavior program, to update her about her gender-based discrimination case, she left her lab and went to sit on a park bench. “I remember being caught off guard, shell-shocked, stunned,” she recalls.

Helen had mentioned an incident in her lab to her advisor that she had “interpreted as sexism,” which the advisor then reported to the EOAA.

Helen sat for an interview, which lasted around an hour. She says that two of her lab members were also interviewed. I spoke with one of them. Her advisor tells me that when she reported the incident, the office was helpful, explaining the process clearly and discussing options for resolving the conflict.

By the end of the process, the most troubling thing for Helen was not whether or not the initial incident was sexist. “What was really messed up,” she says, was the comment that the EOAA made when sharing their determination with her by phone. She’s trying to quote the line from memory the best she can, a line that is “pretty seared in there.”

It seemed, she remembers the EOAA investigator told her over the phone, the respondent “only had a problem with a certain type of woman.”

The EOAA does not comment on individual cases.

A former labmate of Helen’s tells me that when she was interviewed by the EOAA on the matter, she told the investigator that she did not believe the incident was ill-intentioned, and that the respondent’s behavior felt like it occurred in response to “women who were more assertive.”

Immediately following the call, Helen contacted her advisor to tell her what the EOAA had said. Her advisor was “fuming mad about it,” Helen says. Helen’s advisor tells me she thinks this was a “really inappropriate and poor choice of words.” Shortly after, in a subsequent conversation with the investigator, Helen’s advisor says the phrase “certain type of woman” was used again, though not in a context of their findings.

Helen’s advisor says she responded: “I hope you didn’t say that to my female student.” She claims the EOAA investigator denied that she had. Helen’s advisor didn’t reveal to the investigator that she knew the line had been used, she says, though she expressed to her why the language was inappropriate.

“They’re stereotypes that I have faced my entire life that I remember—as a strong, assertive woman I am quite sensitized to the idea of women being aggressive bitches and I don’t want anyone to make my students feel like those are not very positive qualities,” the advisor says.

Helen feels her experience with the EOAA was an uneasy process. She says the questions in her interview focused on her character, “probing” into her personality—for instance, asking whether she had a history of problems in the workplace. It felt their questions implied they were asking: Could this “be you?”

At the end of the process, the EOAA chose not to open an investigation into the respondent. Helen chose not to contest the decision, but even if she had, there would be no way to do so with objective evidence, as complainants are not allowed to record meetings with the EOAA during the investigation process.

The question of recording in sexual assault proceedings became a central question on campus during tense conversations between activists and the administration in 2016. That September, activist group No Red Tape circulated a petition in protest of the University’s decision to prevent students from recording meetings and hearings with Student Conduct and Community Standards, the office which encompasses the GBMO.

In their petition, No Red Tape describes “Columbia Title IX investigators’ history of incomplete and inaccurate note-taking and intimidating interrogation tactics.” Without a recording, they argued, students did not have the opportunity to hold the University accountable. Executive Vice President Suzanne Goldberg defended the policy by citing privacy concerns, and the potential for a chilling effect on students coming forward and sharing in meetings. In late October, activists held a #RightToRecord rally, alleging a week later that the SCCS had not addressed their concerns. Goldberg published “additional thoughts” in late November, reiterating her beliefs and warning that recordings may spread across social media or through borrowed, lost, or stolen phones.

The chilling effect rationale is a reasonable concern in the context of a hearing or meetings where both parties are involved, according to Shiwali Patel, the director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “There is no guarantee where the recording would end up—in whose hands and how it would be used,” she says.

The EOAA’s restriction on recording is intended to protect the privacy of the parties involved, as recordings can be manipulated, shared, or disseminated—potentially making those who take part in the process fearful that their accounts can be shared and thereby discouraging them from coming forward.

But a complainant wanting to record their meetings with investigators is different, according to Patel. “There is a concern about bias during the investigation,” she says. If a complainant wants to appeal a decision based on information that they believe was inaccurately portrayed, a recording could be a “useful avenue to do so.”

“If it’s a complainant that wants her own recording of an interview, I guess I wouldn’t understand then what the concern of the school is if they're worried about chilling effect,” Patel remarks.

Sejal Singh, who co-founded Columbia’s Coalition Against Sexual Violence and graduated from Columbia College in 2015, says she is “very disturbed to hear that policy is still in place.” She also served as a former policy and advocacy coordinator at Know Your IX.

While activists and administrators clashed over recording interviews in relation to the GBMO, which only handles cases in which students are respondents, Lila, the graduate student at CUMC, shared similar concerns with the EOAA.

She remembers being asked questions like those posed to Helen. Often, questions in the investigation process were pointed, she feels, centering on her character and culpability, including the extent to which she was responsible for putting herself in the situation or her drinking habits. She claims that investigators also focused on her mental health, questioning “the fact that I was in a frenzied panic state after things had transpired.”

After the EOAA made its determination, Lila was allowed to view the final report, but no record of it was allowed to leave the office. She claims that in the report investigators suggested her response was not “the appropriate pattern of someone who has undergone something like this,” Lila recalls.

In conversations with two other individuals that were called in for interviews on Lila’s case, a similar narrative arises. One tells me it seemed the investigators were “fishing.” Both remember the questions posed by investigators centering much more heavily on Lila than the accused.

“People think that the days of when people ask ‘what were you wearing’ and ‘what were you drinking’ are over,” Singh says. “And they’re really not.”

The EOAA’s 2017-2018 report says that the office is trained in “trauma-informed interviewing,” though this is not mentioned in the most recent report. According to Williams, doing a “character assessment” is part of the investigative process, but when he trains investigators, he says he tells them to make sure their questions are directly on topic, noting that there is “a range of dispute about what's appropriate and what is not” in questioning. To him, the most important thing for investigators is “training, training, training.”

Lila claims the office did not allow her to record meetings between herself and its investigators. It’s their rule, not New York State’s, which has a one-party consent law that grants you the legal right to record conversations you are a part of without the consent of others.

A complainant has “every right to record,” says Laura Dunn, a victims’ rights attorney. “In fact, they shouldn't tell the person they're recording it. They should just do it.”

After reading the EOAA’s final determination, Lila says not having been able to record meetings “gives [the EOAA] all of the leveraged power in a situation.” Lila claims she wasn’t able to respond to allegations made about her during the investigation. This claim would be included in her eventual appeal to the EOAA, as she believed it violated the University’s own policy. She took issue with how the office had interpreted things she had said in the interview and how they had characterized her. But with no recording, she had no substantive evidence to dispute it.

An Uncertain Timeline

When Jenny Davidson, the professor of English and comparative literature, took the time to speak to graduate students, one professor’s name was repeated by people with both firsthand and second-hand knowledge. She felt it was her duty to report it, though she didn’t name the individuals who had experienced the faculty member’s behavior. She then set up a meeting with EOAA staff.

“I filed a report, and no one ever told me anything, ever,” she says. Faculty in the department weren’t kept in the loop either, a move which came with great consequence, according to Davidson.

“The consequence is that whether we like it or not, all of us are complicit in covering up established incidents of abuse,” Davidson says.

When a report of gender-based misconduct or discrimination is filed to the EOAA, the complainant will be contacted by the office.

There are a few things that can happen next: The complainant can not respond or say they do not want anything to happen, and the EOAA may listen, though it is up to the office’s discretion. The complainant can also choose a form of informal resolution, like engaging in a discussion, mediation, or training, in cases that do not involve sexual assault. Or, an investigation can be initiated.

If it is, the EOAA will then conduct interviews. They will review relevant information—they can determine which witnesses they will interview and which documents they will review. Then, they will come to a decision. They say that they will aim to ensure this happens within 60 days.

The most common concern among students and faculty is that they know little to nothing about the EOAA: how decisions are made, who makes those decisions, and, most significantly, when they might be informed about the outcome. This includes students and faculty who have engaged with the process firsthand as complainants, those filing reports, and those interviewed during investigations. This includes the leadership of departments in which a member is a respondent in a case.

The process itself can feel shrouded and hushed from within, leaving complainants and witnesses in the dark for longer stretches of time. Meanwhile, complainants are left open to potential retaliation over the course of the indeterminate timeframe of the proceedings, according to graduate students and faculty members—by the respondent, faculty in their department, even for the rest of their career. And while, according to students and experts, this is not entirely a Columbia-specific problem, it requires Columbia-specific solutions.

Lila’s process lasted one year. The Eye has reviewed emails exchanged with EOAA investigators, administrators, and members of her old and current department throughout the investigation and its aftermath.

In the first six months of the investigation, when she asked the EOAA for updates on multiple occasions, they basically responded that “things are happening,” Lila says. “They didn’t ever say what was happening.” And after being given a chance to read what the EOAA had summarized as her statement in January of 2018, Lila didn’t hear from the office until June.

A federal regulation, which interpreted the Title IX statute, requires “grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee complaints.” In 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos removed the Obama-era guidelines requiring investigations to be concluded with in 60 days. The Clery Act, in its text itself, requires that a trial be “prompt.”

At Columbia, the EOAA’s policy purports they will “seek to resolve every complaint within approximately 60 calendar days of an initial report.” The University can extend this window, however, though they must provide a “written explanation to the complainant and respondent.” Federal regulations also require that proceedings are completed in “reasonably prompt timeframes” determined by each university, and longer if they provide written notice to the complainant and respondent regarding the reason for the extension.

There are multiple factors that can contribute to lengthening the timeline of an investigation, including lack of cooperation from parties involved, as well as the necessity of time taken to review materials and corroborate reports. The effort to reach a fair conclusion, especially in light of the complexity of some cases, can slow the process, a tension that the EOAA must confront.

Lila says she received no written explanation for why her investigation had taken so long. “Truly nothing happened between January and June,” she tells me.

“That’s an egregiously long time to have no idea what’s going on with your case,” Singh says. “And people aren't going to come forward to report if they think their case is going to a black box.”

Time frames for resolving EOAA gender-based misconduct cases during 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years

Each circle represents a case.

Gender-Based Harassment

and Discrimination

Sexual Harassment

Retaliation

Sexual Misconduct

1–60 days

61–120 days

121 – 180 days

181 – 240 days

241 – 305 days

Source: Columbia University Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action

Time frames for resolving EOAA gender-based misconduct cases during 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years

Each circle represents a case.

Gender-Based

Harassment and

Discrimination

Sexual

Misconduct

Sexual

Harassment

Retaliation

1–60

days

61–120

days

121–180

days

181–240

days

241–305

days

Source: Columbia University Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action

Time frames for resolving EOAA gender-based misconduct cases during 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years

Each circle represents a case.

Gender-Based

Harassment

and

Discrimination

Sexual

Misconduct

Sexual

Harassment

Retaliation

1–60

days

61–120

days

121–180

days

181–240

days

241–305

days

Source: Columbia University Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action

A Principal Investigator at CUMC, who has been granted anonymity to protect the identity of a postdoctoral researcher who she guided through the process in 2017, would not encourage a student to go to the office again. She regrets not advising the complainant to go to the police, she says.

The EOAA investigators they met with initially were “very nice, super nice.” They did what they had to do—collect the facts, she says. Then, it’s a “dark space.” She didn’t know who was making decisions about the case. She didn’t know how many cases they were handling and how long the process would take.

The EOAA may implement interim measures if they decide it is warranted. They may block a respondent from accessing campus or change where they work. A complaintant can request to remain anonymous for cases involving sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, and stalking, and the office will “consider the request,” and honor it “when appropriate.”

During her investigation, Lila received a no-contact directive, which prohibits both parties from initiating direct contact with each other and occupying the same location, about a month after asking for one.

But the mutually-enforced directive made Lila feel like she’d been punished at times—Lila would have to transfer out of not only her lab, but her department, and throughout that process, the directive all but prevented her from returning to her lab because the respondent remained in the space.

Dunn “vehemently” opposes mutual no-contact directives. Complainants haven’t done anything wrong, she says. “They are in no way limited because they asserted their rights... That is the definition of retaliation.”

Shenoy argues that, more broadly, EOAA accommodations often don’t consider the power dynamics between a faculty member and a graduate student. “This person has the ability to destroy your future life because they can simply bad mouth you to their colleagues—and your career is over.”

Lila’s attempt at transferring departments made its way up to Arthur Palmer, the Associate Dean of Graduate Affairs at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was aware of the investigation, but she had trouble getting in touch with him. Lila tried showing up to Palmer’s office, but he wasn’t there. She showed up again, but was only able to speak with an assistant dean. She showed up a third time and was then able to meet with Palmer, a few weeks after her initial email.

After speaking with Palmer, she was able to meet with the relevant deans, and she transferred into another lab science department at CUMC. Palmer did not respond to multiple requests for an interview and comment.

Throughout this time, there were no indications that the respondent would be moved out of the lab.

Because of how the Columbia’s system is set up, some students say they feel lawsuits are the only effective way to get the University’s attention. “I would never go to the EOAA,” Kate says. “The only time I would ever go public with a complaint about this is a lawsuit.”

At the end of her investigation, Lila went to the EOAA office to review their lengthy final report on paper, as per EOAA policy. She has since appealed the case, unsuccessfully, citing violations in University policies over questioning.

Lila considered the final ruling, which found the respondent guilty of breaching University conduct, a “semblance of justice through a very, very tough journey to get there.” And it was exactly this—knowing how difficult the journey would be—that had discouraged her from filing a report in the first place.

Helen doesn’t think she would go back to the EOAA if something happened again. It felt like the office didn’t understand that “it takes a lot to step up and say: ‘This is a bad thing that happened to me, and I don’t think it’s fair.’” She knows they aren’t counselors, she says, but she felt they didn’t take into account that she had “gone through a traumatic experience,” and that they “didn’t seem to care to try to fix that.”

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