Part III: Beyond the System
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Written by Gavrielle Jacobovitz

3 Beyond the System Beyond the System

Part III: Beyond the System

Departments

In October 2017, just three days before the New York Times broke decades worth of sexual harassment allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, they published another story.

William Harris, a previously prominent professor in the department of history, had been sued facing allegations of sexual harassment by a former doctoral student.

Many in the department found out through the Times story, says history professor Frank Guridy. He found out that way, too.

“That in it of itself was disturbing and difficult to manage,” Guridy says. He and other faculty members felt something should be done at the department level. At the same time, graduate students were pushing the department, too. Rebecca Glade, the co-president of the Graduate History Association at the time of Harris’ retirement, organized history graduate students to pressure the University to adequately address the issue, making both immediate and longer-term demands.

The allegations against Harris “catalyzed us to actually do something in the moment,” Guridy adds. “Because, it was very clear that something had to happen at the department level—that we couldn’t just rely on the central administration to help us figure out our situation here.”

The department hosted a town hall. “A lot of faculty showed up, a lot of students showed up,” says Glade. Guridy gave a “great speech,” she adds.

Within weeks of the New York Times report, then-Provost John Coatsworth and two deans received a petition signed by history graduate students calling for Harris’ suspension and for the issue to be treated systemically. The petition received over one hundred signatures.

Students expressed the many concerns they had. For the past two years, Harris had taught a course required for all history graduate students. They had only learned about Harris and the suit against Columbia from the Times—despite working closely with him.

Following the town hall, the department formed a Committee on Inclusion and Diversity, which Guridy says “sounds vanilla, but its not.” Guridy says appointing only tenured faculty onto the committee was a very intentional decision. Some felt the burden had been disproportionately placed on students. The committee was formed to serve two purposes: to address the lack of communication between faculty and graduate students; and to tackle cultural issues in the department. For instance, they’ve implemented workshops and invited speakers.

Guridy was “farsighted enough to think that, so far, the department’s responses were always reactive—and what we needed was something that was more proactive,” says Elisheva Carlebach, a professor of history and a member of the committee since its inception.

The committee is just that: a proactive measure meant to “educate and sensitize faculty in the broadest sense,” Carlebach says. Its other role is to serve as a channel for students and faculty to express concerns and to be connected with someone who can address it.

“The sense among students [was] that there were things happening and there was nobody to turn to in the department,” Carlebach says. An experience she had helping a student navigate various offices that deal with these issues led to her involvement in the initiative. She had felt that the majority of those offices lacked empathy or the proper support mechanisms for students. A better departmental team, she adds, could have helped her advocate better for her students.

Graduate students had short-term and long-term demands. Short-term goals were focused on a response to Harris. In the long-term, they asked for changes to the structure of the EOAA’s process itself—more transparency around time frames for investigations, having multiple reports trigger an automatic investigation, a rubric for sanctions, and delaying notifying respondents to mitigate retaliation.

Under city and statelaw, the University must require an online anti-sexual harassment training for faculty, staff, and student workers. Incoming faculty and staff must also complete an additional training from the university through the EOAA.

The training is mandated for all employees, including faculty and students paid by the University as employees, and details mandatory reporting requirements and explains what happens after a complaint is filed, as well as scenarios demonstrating different forms of sexual harassment and misconduct. It is left up to departments to request supplemental training services offered by the EOAA.

But “a yearly briefing from the central administration on the intricacies on harassment and exclusion is not enough,” Guridy says. A committee can help ensure these conversations continue all year long.

“In the Department, we are focusing on what we can hope to have some control over, which is the future and our own Departmental climate,” chair of the history department Adam Kosto writes over email.

There are some things, however, that the Committee on Inclusion and Diversity simply cannot address, per University policy, which dictates that all reports of discrimination, gender-based misconduct, and sexual assault must be directed to the EOAA. “We can’t punish people—we don’t have the ability to have people fired or even investigate,” Guridy says.

A year ago, Glade tells me, she would have given me different answers on her thoughts on the committee. She was heartened at its creation. But now, she sees things differently. While the committee is able to handle smaller issues, Glade says she has felt throughout her time as GHA co-president that “the larger questions are constantly left at loose ends, and the same situations in the status quo remain either way.”

“I think my department does care about these issues, and has done some soul searching, and is willing to do the work,” Glade later adds. “I think it's the larger administration that is currently incapable of doing so.”

In light of these efforts, these meetings, the committee’s formation—would anything play out differently in the history department if a situation like Harris’ were to arise again?

Glade says no.

“The hierarchies embedded in the department and in the University make it very difficult for the committee, these initiatives, to do very much,” Glade says. “And part of that I blame on a centralized university administration system.”

***

In the spring of 2018, just months after Harris’ retirement, the New York Times once again broke news on a prominent Columbia faculty member: Thomas Jessell, the late neuroscientist and former director of MBBI, was abruptly terminated after “an investigation that revealed serious violations of university policies.” A week later, the neuroscience department held a town hall for graduate students in the Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior.

A graduate student in neuroscience told Spectator at the time that she had learned about his termination through the Times, that she believes that’s where many other students learned about it as well, and that the article “didn’t say a lot.”

The town hall, the audio of which The Eye has reviewed, began with an answer to the question that seemingly was on everyone’s mind: Why had Jessell, a world-renowned neuroscientist, been terminated?

Around five minutes into the town hall, a faculty member in the program answered the question. Five years ago, Jessell had had a relationship with someone he was supervising that violated University policy.

But this answer would not end up being the heart of the town hall. Instead, students would spend the next hour and a half discussing another question: What could be done to make sure this doesn't happen again, to address harassment as a structural problem?

Students brought up remedies and alternative measures that the University could take, Jozsef Meszaros, a postdoctoral researcher in the psychiatry department, remembers, like increasing transparency about the process. He felt students were met with a response from administrators that “papered over any responsibility by any one or more people.”

The town hall was a “bubbling of all of these emotions that had just been building over many years,” recounts Lara Boyle, a graduate student in the Neurobiology and Behavior program. “There was a lot of frustration on the part of the students that more was not being done.” In part, students were frustrated there wasn’t a way of reporting harassment or bias at the school that yielded timely results.

At the town hall, students expressed their opinions about the responsibility of the University and faculty, remembers Steve Siegelbaum, the chair of the neuroscience department, though he felt there were misperceptions. He believes students had more knowledge than many faculty members of the circumstances that led to Jessell’s termination. Boyle also says the town hall revealed the discrepancy between what students knew and what faculty knew.

But some students and faculty disagree about who knew what. A professor in neurobiology tells me, perhaps hyperbolically, “everybody knew that relationship was going on for a long time.” Kate tells me that “it wasn’t a secret,” though she believes particular faculty members when they say they didn’t know.

Before the town hall had ended, one student would ask faculty members to each share whether they had known about Jessell’s relationship. Most denied it, some abstained. One professor admitted to having known about the rumors.

But the conversation didn’t end at the town hall. Jessell’s termination, says Kelly Martyniuk, the graduate student in the neurobiology and behavior program, “opened up this can of worms”—of the things happening to her and to women around her. Students had been “dealing with this crap for so long, and no one was really listening.” Before the town hall, she had heard “many cases” from other women graduate students about instances of harassment they had faced.

“It was kind of like the lid just blew off the whole thing, and we finally were in a position where the University was actually sort of listening to us,” Martyniuk says. She later adds: “This was the first time where there seems like there were some consequences.”

Following the town hall, a student advisory committee formed in late April. The committee “enables [students] to have a voice—a more active voice—in the program,” according to Siegelbaum. The SAC formed a bias, inclusion, and harassment committee with a focus on implicit gender and racial bias. During their first few meetings, students were “really, really mad,” Martyniuk says. They wrote issues they wanted to address on a white board, trying to narrow it down. They began seeing common threads: It all seemed to come back to the culture at Columbia, specifically the power dynamics in the relationships between mentors and mentees, students and faculty.

So they took these concerns to administrators inside and outside the program, seeking answers to questions they had: How were these situations handled? What resources did students have? Is there someone they can talk to anonymously? What steps can someone take to deal with these sorts of situations? What can we do to prevent them from happening in the first place?

On the last question, “there just didn’t seem to be much infrastructure,” Martyniuk says. “It all seemed really reactionary.”

The committee decided on a mandatory implicit bias training workshop. They asked to run one that they had designed with the help of psychiatry professor Michael Devlin.

“We’re really looking for tangible things that we can do immediately,” Boyle says.

In September of 2018, the semester following the formation of the committee, the committee applied to a National Institute of Health grant for the formation of a diversity initiative in the department. Their approach was three-fold: implementing an implicit bias workshop for faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students; launching a mentorship program for students with identities that are underrepresented in academia; and creating a seminar series—all to address an underlying culture of bias and discrimination.

The grant was rejected—in part because the reviewers said the implicit bias workshop should “already be in place” at Columbia. “We know, but they aren't,” Martyniuk says. The Eye has reviewed the grant application and its rejection.

The committee will not be reapplying for the grant. Some students on the committee cited feeling a lack of strong faculty support, while others felt like faculty were beginning to be receptive to finding funding within the school.

In the fall of 2018, the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, which houses scientists working on projects related to the brain, ran conflict management training led by the Ombuds Office for some labs.

But the committee continues to pursue the implementation of its own implicit bias workshop. Its pilot ran in April of 2019. Martyniuk says the committee will try to roll out the workshop in full by early 2020.

To prepare for the workshop, the committee surveyed graduate students, asking them to share their experiences anonymously. “We got an enormous amount of feedback,” Martyniuk says. A few of these instances made their way into the training: a student being asked on a date by a principal investigator; a senior male PI telling a woman graduate student she was too attractive to have a facial piercing; being mistaken for support staff, despite wearing a white lab coat; a senior male lab member expressing he wanted to attend a talk “because the female speaker is attractive.”

The pilot workshop was met with some pushback from faculty, according to multiple members of the committee—though after a few days, some warmed up to it. This may have been because faculty had initially assumed the workshop was a training, says Laura Benoit, a graduate student in the neurobiology and behavior program, though the committee had explicitly avoided using the word. Instead, they were hoping to increase awareness about the types of situations that may arise and develop strategies to address them.

“A lot of the feedback we got in the moment was, all right, yeah, but who really cares if someone touches your hair,” Benoit says. But faculty were expecting, for instance, instruction on preventing the use of gendered words in letters of recommendation. In revising it, the committee wants to include more scenarios: faculty-faculty, postdoc-faculty, “whatever it might be.”

To address sexual harassment more directly, the committee worked to implement an anonymous reporting mechanism, potentially for graduate students in Manhattanville and CUMC. But they hit a “roadblock,” Martyniuk says, as without identification, reports of sexual assault could not be investigated.

Still, the anonymous reporting tool could serve a crucial purpose in deterring discrimination and harassment—for “things that haven’t yet crossed that boundary,” accounting for “systemic problems,” Maryniyuk says. The medical school has an anonymous reporting form, according to Benoit. Similarly, the Graduate History Association and Committee for Inclusion and Diversity set up a reporting box, not to deal with individual cases but “as a means of diagnosing and thinking about atmosphere,” according to Glade.

Administrators at the Zuckerman Institute are also working towards addressing issues of culture and climate. Rui Costa, a professor of neuroscience and the director and CEO of Zuckerman says they are working to be “proactive.” To increase transparency, they released a “Code of Conduct.” The Institute is also providing trainings, including one from a few weeks ago, where a third-party expert from outside the University trained senior administrators on EOAA policy. Kelley Remole, the Institute’s Senior Director of Programs, adds that they intend to roll out this training for more people in the Institute. Notably, the EOAA office itself did not lead any of these Zuckerman trainings.

“In academia, the best environments for discovery have been in environments where people feel safe, that they can speak out, that there's a diversity of opinions,” Costa tells me. “... And where everyone feels that they are contributing, this ultimately leads to a better environment”

In the Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior, students now have a louder voice than before Jessell’s termination, according to students and faculty. “Before, you had a room full of faculty members who were making all the decisions about the lives of grad students,” Martyniuk says. Now the students finally have a seat at the table.

***

In November of 2016, graduate student Maayan Yehudai sent an invitation to students and postdocs at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to what would be their first official Gender & Diversity Coffee Hour, in hopes of forming a community for women at Lamont. Nearly 16 miles away from the Morningside campus, she set out to change her campus’ culture, alongside other students and faculty.

The Gender & Diversity Coffee Hour has continued monthly, and topics for discussion have included women in science, gender bias, harassment, and implicit bias.

Last June, Yehudai and Lucy Tweed, the gender and diversity chair of the graduate student committee in the Earth and environmental sciences department, presented the results of a survey they had conducted on graduate students’ experiences at Lamont, which over thirty students responded to. In one question, students on the survey were asked if they had been subject to or witnessed harassment or bullying at Lamont—it didn’t have to be gender-based. Five students said they had witnessed it, nine had heard of it, and five said they had experienced it personally. The next question asked: If their answer was yes, did they report it, either on behalf of themselves, or as a mandatory reporter? A single respondent said yes; they stated on the survey that they wouldn't do it again.

The group is also working on encouraging Lamont to adopt a different model for advisorship, where students wouldn’t have only one advisor. Rather than a students’ academic career potentially being at the whim of a single faculty member, a proposal like this one would create a safety net of sorts.

“People are like, ‘oh, yeah, maybe in 50 years,’” Yehudai says. “No. This has to happen now, yesterday. What are you waiting for?”

A Different Approach

Universities are required by federal regulations to have a Title IX office, so the solution to its limitations cannot be to abolish it. Instead, some faculty and students are looking for alternatives to implement alongside it.

The EOAA’s grievance procedure has been an issue taken up by both the graduate student and postdoctoral research unions at Columbia, which argue that the University’s ties to the process can potentially bias findings. In bargaining with the University, the unions have advocated for neutral third party arbitration, according to a draft of the Grievance and Arbitration article. In addition, the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers is advocating for better interim measures and discrete timelines.

“The kinds of stories that you are getting from people, the stuff that we hear all the time, it’s part of why our members and us are so committed to having a process that actually works,” Susannah Glickman, a graduate student in the history department and lead organizer in the union, tells me.

But Columbia has maintained that the University has sole jurisdiction over arbitration. If a grievance brings allegations of discrimination by the University, they proposed to the union, in a document the Eye has reviewed, that it “will be processed through the University’s procedures for discrimination claims.” At the moment, the University has proposed to both graduate and postdoctoral student unions that complainants go through the University’s procedures first, and then the union’s procedure as an appeal.

To Glickman, this wouldn’t fix what she considers broken as it would still mean going through a process that can stretch on indeterminately.

Other universities are seeking alternative options. In their 2012 Michigan Law Review paper, Ian Ayres and Cait Unkovic evaluate the “allegation escrow” system for claims of sexual harassment and other issues, which would allow an individual to file a complaint knowing that it will only be acted upon if other allegations against the same perpetrator are brought as well. It’s premised on the concept of game theory, according to economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty, who is part of the Faculty of Arts and Science’s Committee for Equity and Diversity that resulted from the equity report. You may not want to be the first person to take the risk to do something, but once someone else has, you’d be more likely to join.

Kaufman, who led the CED last year, is interested in an “escrow” system like Callisto, a nonprofit third-party reporting tool that allows students and faculty to report without launching an internal investigation through the University. The system then detects whether perpetrators have been reported again and, if so, notifies the person who filed the initial report. The platform also offers resources to those who report.

Callisto has already been implemented at multiple universities, including Stanford University and the University of Southern California. Last month at the University of Pennsylvania, students pressured their administration to adopt Callisto at a University Council meeting.

The system can be used widely, in Kaufman’s vision, not only for undergraduates but for graduate students and faculty. “There are junior faculty who feel like they are very worried to report because of retaliation; maybe their tenure case will be at risk if they said anything, but they would like to have something with a time stamp on it,” she says.

O’Flaherty feels the tool should ideally be implemented through a larger umbrella organization that can account for reports across schools, like professional societies. He admits he still has hesitations with the system, namely that if someone is on the fence about reporting and has an escrow system as an option, they might hold out, and so the “harasser never gets punished.”

Callisto would not replace the university’s Title IX office. “I like it as another possible avenue for people to complain if they don't feel comfortable with the avenues that are available to them within the institution,” Kaufman says.

“If people aren’t going to make their complaints, or aren’t happy with the outcome when they do make complaints, then it looks like, well, maybe we should have another option, or we should change the way that our current structure works,” she later adds.

***

Throughout departments, issues of social climate and cultures of gender-based harassment and discrimination are being brought forward—often by graduate students. The CED has now formed a “grassroots network” of faculty and students supporting each other in tackling these issues, Kafuman says.

Guridy, who is also on the committee, believes other departments should have committees like the one in history, or at least, an appointed person to deal with these issues. Some do already. The political science department has a committee, according to their chair Greg Wawro. So does the economics department, according to O’Flaherty. The CED has encouraged other departments to form similar committees on their agenda.

Kaufman doesn’t expect changes in the EOAA system, so the committee is “operating on a different axis.” They are focusing on providing additional options and addressing the climate to limit bad behavior, including that which may be reported to EOAA.

The CED is focused on faculty, according to Kathryn Johnston, the committee’s chair and a professor of astronomy. “The hope is that this is going to lead have knock-on effects to other parts of the campus as well.”

On April 3, 2019, departments were invited to a “Day of Equity and Diversity Programming,” where representatives of their departments participated in a workshop headed by a professor of psychology who studies gender equity. Most departments attended. Each was asked what their department was doing to address questions of diversity and inclusion.

They found that some departments had robust plans, Kaufman says. But some were doing very little.

The equity committee also encouraged faculty to submit proposals for initiatives that the committee could help fund in support of equity, diversity, and inclusion in their department. They funded six projects, including two in the physics department. Soon, they will host a community café in which faculty awarded funds for their proposals will return to talk about the projects. This will allow faculty supported by the initiative to report to each other what they’ve learned so far, according to Jeremy Dodd, a professor in the physics department who's leading a program funded by the committee. They’re “building this network of people that can interact,” according to Kaufman.

A month after the diversity day, the committee hosted a training on bystander intervention for faculty and department chairs led by the A&S Office for Faculty of Development & Diversity, the Ombuds Office, and the EOAA.

The network stretches beyond the Arts and Sciences. Columbia University and the Columbia University Irving Medical Center are two of over 60 universities and research institutions who are members of the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine Action Collaborative On Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education. The University joined on April 5, 2019, as “part of our commitment of fostering an environment free from gender-based discrimination and harassment, including sexual assault and all other forms of gender-based misconduct,” they wrote in their commitment letter.

Kaufman, Johnston, and Dodd highlight efforts of graduate students pressuring faculty to act on these issues and leading initiatives within departments.

“I’m encouraged by the things that are happening outside of the formal reporting avenues,” Kaufman says.

But should this—tackling the systemic, cultural, and insidious issues of gender-based discrimination, harassment, and misconduct—be the EOAA’s role?

The answer, according to some Title IX experts, is yes, ideally. But faculty and students don’t necessarily see it that way now.

The EOAA has education and training initiatives, including their online sexual harassment training. Notably, Columbia’s Gender-Based Misconduct Office, which is geared towards students and deals with issues solely involving students, instituted an extensive mandatory Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative in 2015.

The EOAA also collaborates with university administrators, department chairs, and institute heads when informal resolution is the best alternative for a case, according to a University spokesperson. “We are still refining these collaborations and look forward to strengthening these partnerships,” the spokesperson said in a statement to The Eye.

But members of the equity committee don’t seem to consider the EOAA as a resource for addressing underlying cultural issues. Dodd says he tends to think efforts may be less productive if they’re coming from outside the department. Kaufman sees the office as where the “compliance questions live.”

“For other things, I don’t think of them as a big resource,” she says.

Johnston draws a similar line. The EOAA is investigative and potentially punitive, she says. It’s also “painfully slow,” which is difficult for a complainant. “In terms of growth and cultural change, that’s not really going to happen through punitive actions,” Johnston says. These punitive actions are necessary, she says, “but a lot of the culture change that’s necessary needs practices that are more restorative and more transparent.”

“I think EOAA is not going to change the cultural load and that’s precisely why we need committees and diversity, and events in equity and diversity. We need engagement from everybody,” Johnston adds.

In his time serving as an interim Title IX coordinator, Lake says he was told that his work “very very clearly … is premised on the idea that our fundamental job is to reduce or eliminate sex discrimination and its impacts.” This includes the response to individual incidents in violation of Title IX policy. “But the mission of Title IX is not to create a college sex board—it’s to reduce or eliminate sex discrimination.”

But Lake has seen that offices nationwide are, simply, overwhelmed. The majority of Title IX offices have “really struggled to get out of the weeds” and do more than manage no-contact directives, and hearings, and other responsibilities for dealing with reports. “The resources, time, energy, money are not necessarily plentiful for the other cultural work,” he says

Williams feels similarly: It’s very difficult to handle complaints and investigations. “Just doing that part of the work takes up a ton of bandwidth, and I think sometimes that bandwidth can then bleed into the office’s ability at times to do the other stuff”—training and outreach, addressing systemic issues and culture.

But if you had that time, that money, those resources, I ask Lake, then what would be the ideal Title IX approach to addressing those cultural and systemic issues?

It all comes back to where it started, Lake says: with the Yale resolution.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education formed a resolution agreement with Yale University after a complaint accused the school of failing to adequately address sex discrimination as per Title IX policy. So Yale changed the way it was doing things. They committed to improving the visibility of university resources, evaluating their campus’s climate regularly, executing a new grievance procedure, and furthering educational efforts, including training. The resolution was the “Magna Carta of Title IX,” says Lake—it imagined a future with less emphasis on discipline and more attempts to make a positive impact on culture.

“The jury is still out on exactly what combination of effort really is the one that wins,” he adds. “But my instinct is that, by going back to Yale, the ultimate goal lies in culture and climate change, in getting in front of them before they turn into sexual violence.”

Since that first town hall, neurobiology and behavior graduate students have formed a community to address bias and diversity; they’ve worked towards implementing anonymous options for reporting and they’ve applied for external funding, though unsuccessfully. With all of these changes and efforts taking place in the neurobiology and behavior program and the Zuckerman Institute, would things go differently if a situation like Jessell’s arose again?

When asked if she believed things would be different, were something like Jessell’s relationship to happen again, Kate is quick to answer: “Absolutely not.” She feels like people would just make excuses—though she doesn’t generally think it’s because of the bad intentions of those in her department. She herself knew about Jessell’s relationship with the student four years before the Times story broke it.

Maybe the better question, then, is this: if it is already happening—if discrimination and harassment are as systemic as the stories suggest—is the University equipped to deal with it?

“Having a University-backed entity for this is never going to be a thing that I’m going to trust,” Kate says. And students’ careers are on the line, she adds. Academia is a small world. People talk to one another, and a reputation can stay with you for a long time. “It’s still the 1970s here. If you’re a woman who puts up too much of a fuss, you’re tanked, essentially.”

The EOAA primarily deals with individual incidents, employing the usual reports, investigations, and interim measures. While they mandate online training for all employees, including faculty and students employed by the University, per requirements of state law, as well as offer in-person training, interviews reveal that these educational efforts are limited in their impact. But students and faculty on all four of Columbia’s campuses tell me that there are lurking cultural and systemic issues of bias and harassment that need to be dealt with; that if the smaller issues are addressed effectively, they could reduce the prevalence of the larger issues.

That most reportable behavior starts somewhere.

At the end of our first conversation, Martyniuk tells me she feels better now than she did a year and a half ago. But the changes her committee is making are going to be slow to take effect. She doesn’t know if she’ll experience them before she graduates in two years. “I think all the smaller things will help,” she reflects. “But it won’t make a dent until, really, there are equal numbers of women and people of color represented, not only at the student level, but at the postdoc and the faculty level.”

She ends our last conversation, in a meeting room overlooking hazy hospital buildings, by returning to this. “I think we can do all these incremental things—I’m glad that we’re doing them. I’m glad that we’re still trying to do what we can from the power that we have as graduate students,” Martyniuk says.

“But really, it’s going to have to be a whole institutional change.”

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