Students and Faculty Say Gender-Based Harassment and Discrimination at Columbia is Systemic. Why Are They Turning Away From the System Built to Address It?
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Written by Gavrielle Jacobovitz

1 Coming Forward momdded Students and Faculty Say Gender-Based Harassment and Discrimination at Columbia is Systemic. Why Are They Turning Away From the System Built to Address It?

Two years ago, a professor leaves the University following allegations of sexual misconduct.

A New York Times article breaks the news for many members of his department, though many had already known.

Graduate students are upset; they want faculty and administrators to do something—not only about the professor or his presence on campus, but also about the system that didn’t do anything sooner, the system that they didn’t feel was doing its job properly.

The department holds a town hall, then more follow. Members form a committee designed to address issues of inclusion and diversity.

Students cannot change the University’s system that handes reports of gender-based misconduct and discrimination, nor can they change the fact that many don’t trust it. They can only hope that the new infrastructure within the department can prevent this from happening again—and that if it does, it will be addressed adequately.

If a case arose now, two years later, would things be different?

“Absolutely not,” says a graduate student in the Neurobiology and Behavior graduate program, who has requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation. The late Thomas Jessell was terminated from his position as a professor and director of Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute in the spring of 2018 due to a violation of the school’s consensual relationship policy.

“No,” says Rebecca Glade, former president of the Graduate History Association and a graduate student in the history department—the same department that saw former professor William Harris retire in the fall of 2017 after multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

“The EOAA [Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action] is not a trustworthy system,” she told me in a previous conversation. “... If placed in a position in which I was harassed or discriminated against, I would not seek recourse through the system. I would personally sue the University because [it seems] that was the only meaningful way in which administrators and the University bureaucracy takes reports seriously.”

Students and Faculty Say Gender-Based Harassment and Discrimination at Columbia is Systemic. Why Are They Turning Away From the System Built to Address It?

November 14, 2019

Edited by Julian Shen-Berro, Karen Xia, Rahil Kamath Graphics and Production by Jason Kao Videography by Ryan Balderas

Sources in this story referred to by first name only have been given pseudonyms due to fear of retaliation.

Two years ago, an allegation of sexual harassment and misconduct against a professor at Columbia makes national headlines; a few months later, another does as well. In the months following, a third professor is publicly terminated for violation of the University’s misconduct policy, a later report by Spectator reveals. Partially prompted by an uptick in public lawsuits implicating the University, Columbia’s insurance rate doubled last year.

The stories tend to be similar: They involve a faculty member and a graduate student; other faculty members usually know about it before anything becomes public; the New York Times usually breaks the story; many others within the faculty member’s department find out that way.

“What people don’t often realize is you can have a story about a [principal investigator] and how they're awful,” says Jozsef Meszaros, a postdoctoral researcher in the psychiatry department and a member of the bargaining committee of Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-United Auto Workers, the postdoctoral worker union at Columbia. “But there are a hundred other stories that aren't being written.”

Officially, Columbia handles Title IX complaints of gender-based misconduct, harassment, and discrimination through the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. While the Gender-Based Misconduct Office manages reports involving students who are respondents, the EOAA investigates reports involving faculty members, as well as graduate students acting in their capacities as teaching assistants. It also provides departments with professional development opportunities, training sessions, and avenues to pursue informal resolutions through mediations or alternative solutions. In recent years, it has also strengthened training for faculty and staff and has introduced more stringent policies governing consensual relationships between faculty and graduate students.

Released this October, the EOAA’s second annual report revealed that of 55 reports of sexual harassment it had receieved last year, only three respondents were found in violation of their policy. Of 40 cases of gender-based harassment and discrimination, zero respondents were found guilty; of 15 reports of sexual misconduct, zero respondents were found guilty.

Further, in cases of sexual harassment and gender-based harassment and discrimination reported to the EOAA, the most common outcome is that a complainant does not respond to the office’s outreach, or declines participation in their process. Fifteen of 55 reports and 13 of 40 reports ended in these outcomes respectively.

These are only the cases that were reported.

In October of 2018, the Policy and Planning Committee and members of the Equity Committee in the Natural Sciences, the Humanities, and the Social Sciences released a report detailing the experiences of tenure-line faculty on questions of equity. The committee began collecting data in the fall of 2016.

Its online survey responses revealed that most women reported having experienced discrimination by a colleague at the University at least once; nearly a third said the same about harassment. However, the report’s executive summary notes, “there is considerable concern and a lack of faith in the current reporting options, and fear of retaliation was expressed.”

Among other recommendations, the report suggested faculty should “encourage review and reform of the existing reporting system to establish trust and confidence in the process.”

At Columbia, the EOAA’s process is seen as a “black box.”

Lara Boyle, a graduate student in the Neurobiology and Behavior graduate program, tells me this in the lounge outside her lab in Manhattanville’s Zuckerman Institute, a building with vast windows that feels smaller when it rains. Niyati Shenoy, a graduate student in the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies department and member of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers sexual harassment working group tells me this too. It’s the reason, Shenoy says, why many students are hesitant to report. Gil Hochberg, the director of graduate studies in MESAAS, says this as well, reflecting on a report she filed on a student’s behalf.

In the three months I’ve reported on the EOAA, and in the two years I’ve investigated sexual misconduct and gender discrimination at Columbia, this is something students and faculty keep returning to: They, and many others, don’t trust the EOAA.

Sometimes, this is due to the stories they’ve heard. Stories like Lila’s, a graduate student at the Columbia University Medical Center, whose investigation took more than five times as long to complete as University policy claims it generally does; like Helen’s, a graduate student in the Neurobiology and Behavior program who was told that the respondent only had issues with “a certain type of woman;” like Samantha’s, a postdoctoral researcher who was fired while her investigation was still ongoing; of the tenured professors who are accused or found guilty of sexual misconduct and assault or settle with the University, and continue to remain on campus anyways.

There are too many stories. They travel through whisper networks, hushed warnings, grapevines.

But people also tell me they don’t trust the EOAA because they don’t know anything about the office: its process, its decision-makers, its allegiances.

“If there is a system for dealing with this efficiently, I have no idea what it is,” says Kate, a graduate student in the Neurobiology and Behavior program. It’s in a university’s best interest to protect itself, she claims. “Students don’t have any power here.”

She says she doesn’t know anyone who would go to the EOAA expecting it to be effective.

The Natural Sciences portion of the equity report found that the EOAA “was widely viewed as ineffective,” a common perception that the University only cared about lawsuits, and expressed a “profound fear of retaliation.”

“There was pointed discussion of sexual harassment and discrimination in the interviews and frequent expressions of dislike, distrust, and outright anger about existing systems to address and redress the matter,” committee members concluded in their report.

The report also noted: “One female interviewee expressed astonishment that harassers were not immediately fired and that cases of harassment were not made public, instead having faculty complete a ‘stupid course on sexual harassment.’”

Per University policy, all reported cases must go through the University’s centralized system. But some students and faculty take issue with this mandate, arguing that it discourages students from confiding in faculty and that they are obliged to report to a system that they feel doesn’t work—a system whose investigations can last an indeterminate length of time, leave complainants open to retaliation, and rarely end with a satisfying conclusion.

And while students and faculty raise concerns about the EOAA’s procedures for handling individual reports of gender-based misconduct and discrimination, they also highlight what the EOAA does not do, at least not adequately: confront the culture and climate of harassment and discrimination that pervades higher education. In the gaps of the EOAA’s reach and impact, students and faculty are stepping in, building initiatives from the ground up to change the Columbia’s current climate.

But some worry that without changes at the top, the impact of their efforts are and will be limited.

The EOAA declined a request for an interview about its policies and procedures. In a statement to The Eye, a University spokesperson emphasized Columbia’s commitment to addressing issues of harassment and discrimination.

“We live in an era of difficult truths when it comes to discrimination, harassment and other forms of gender-based misconduct in higher education,” the spokesperson said. “Columbia is committed to addressing these issues. Discrimination and harassment have no place here, nor do inappropriate romantic relationships that run afoul of our recently updated policies.”

But in the aftermath of several nationally-resounding cases at Columbia, and the many more stories that don’t make the news, students and faculty members speak to structural and systemic gender-based harassment and discrimination at the University.

How can a school address these systemic issues if its system isn’t working?

Part I: Coming Forward

Just after Kelly Martyniuk began the Neurobiology and Behavior program as a graduate student, a faculty member told her that they were glad that the program was “finally hiring attractive women.”

“It was very frustrating to hear someone I have so much respect for just like take away everything that I’ve worked for in a quick sentence about how I look,” Martyniuk tells me.

A few weeks after that, he made another comment about her looks.

She went back and forth on whether to report him, and eventually chose not to. The comment “wasn’t something really egregious by any means,” she says. It had happened a while ago, and she felt like this sort of comment was really more of a systemic cultural issue than an isolated one. For Martyniuk, going through the formal process of the EOAA didn’t seem like the right step.

But some time later, another faculty member asked her how graduate students felt about the circumstances surrounding prominent neuroscientist Thomas Jessell’s termination for a violation of the university’s misconduct policy. She admitted many felt the EOAA was trying to address specific situations, instead of systemic problems. She mentioned her experience in passing. Following advice from other faculty, the faculty member reported Kelly’s situation to the EOAA.

“I never wanted to report it in the first place,” she admits. “I feel like it should be up to me as the person who experienced this to deal with it how I want to deal with it.”

University policy requires all faculty to serve as mandatory reporters, meaning any allegation of sexual or gender-based misconduct—ranging from discriminatory comments to sexual assault—has to be officially reported to the relevant offices, namely the Gender-Based Misconduct Office or EOAA. The University regards mandatory reporting as a cornerstone of its system, crucial to ensuring behavior is addressed and to institutionalizing accountability in higher education.

“Mandatory reporting is essential for bringing allegations of gender-based misconduct to the attention of our EOAA office, both to connect students and others with campus resources and to ensure that complaints are investigated and resolved,” the University spokesperson said in their statement.

The enforcement of such structures is also mandated by New York State Law, though legal regulations do not specify the number of employees who must be “responsible employees,” or that all faculty members must be said “responsible employees,” according to legal experts.

Some faculty members and students say they support the current system, noting that many of their peers are unequipped to deal with issues of misconduct and discrimination. Duncan Menge, the director of graduate studies in the Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology department believes that there are advantages to the centralized process.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable that every single faculty member would be perfectly trained in how to deal with every single nuance of the issues that come up,” he says. “... But anytime there is a centralized system, there is potential for negative consequences if that system isn’t working.” As far as he knows, Menge adds, this system works well.

But like Martyniuk, many students and faculty argue that mandatory reporting prevents departments from effectively handling instances of misconduct that don’t necessarily meet the threshold of what complainants feel should require a full proceeding by the EOAA. Instead, those who wish to turn to someone are put in a double bind: On the one hand, students who don’t want to go through a months-long investigation cannot speak openly with mentors who are tasked with ensuring the safety and well-being of their department and students. On the other, they can potentially undergo hours of interviews, months of conversations, and more months of waiting—all to hear that the faculty member will, at best, undergo mandatory training.

“For anything real to happen, there’s such a burden on proof on students,” Kate says. She adds that they’re never going to fire a prominent professor for saying “gross stuff to students.”

The Director of Graduate Studies handbook and the Gender-Based Misconduct Reporting Responsibilities for Columbia University Faculty and Staff policy tells faculty members to warn students at the start of the conversation of their responsibilities as mandated reporters.

Jenny Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature, is a “conscientious objector against mandatory reporting.” She will hire a lawyer to support her if she needs to, she says. “I’m not going to report it unless I have your permission.”

Her decision to not enforce mandatory reporting policies at Columbia emerged in the fall of 2017, around the time both a current and a former Stanford professor in adjacent fields to hers were accused of sexual harassment and assault. Davidson felt almost certain that colleagues had known the accused had a pattern of this behavior. Maybe some didn’t, she says, maybe some students knew more. But she set out with a question for students at Columbia: “What are the things that I don’t know about that I should know about?” She spoke with “a lot of people”—it must have been 30 or so current and former graduate students, she says. She worked closely with two students who were undecided about whether to report.

It became clear to her that students may not want to confide in faculty because they would have to report what they told them.

“You have to choose your words carefully” to avoid having the office contact you, says Maayan Yehudai, a graduate student and the former gender and diversity chair of the graduate student committee in the Earth and environmental sciences department. She believes that the mandatory reporting requirement is “counterproductive.” Yehudai and Lucy Tweed, the current chair, admit that graduate students in their department generally don’t trust the EOAA. Students trust the office has good intentions, Yehudai says, noting that the office came to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to speak with students about their role. “But these are a bunch of people with good intentions and tied hands,” Yehudai remarks, referring to the office’s lack of ability to sanction respondents. “So what the hell.”

But even if students do not want to report, they may still want someone to confide in—someone who knows them and cares about them.

For Lila, a Ph.D. student at the Columbia University Medical Center, a report by a faculty member did launch an investigation that she hadn’t expected. She had wavered on whether or not to report, nearly quitting her program. But she deserved her spot in the program, she decided, and resolved to find a way to stay. Lila reached out to a faculty member she was close to and told him she had been sexually harassed and assaulted by another member of the Columbia community. She hadn’t realized that he was a mandatory reporter.

“That basically started the whole cascade of what ended up being a year-long investigation,” Lila says. By the end of this process, for much of which Lila would be kept in the dark, she would lose access to her lab, switch departments, and face questions about her character.

The EOAA would ultimately determine that there was not enough evidence of sexual harassment or assault to find the respondent responsible, but they did find his conduct had breached University policy.

Numerous faculty members and teaching assistants, like Davidson, have expressed everything from hesitation to staunch opposition when it came to their mandatory reporting duties. While the Ombuds Office offers space for confidential discussion, the office by design is not able to intervene or take action (equity report respondents tended to find the office “toothless”). Mandatory reporting policies also mean that students cannot speak openly about their experiences unless they wish to make an official report. Instead, the only path for recourse lies in the hands of the EOAA.

As teaching assistants, both Yehudai and Tweed are mandatory reporters, a duty they find uncomfortable. To Tweed, the requirement means that she is mandated to report to a system that people don’t trust.

“You’re not part of this system that doesn’t work and is broken, but you must play your role by law,” she says.

“Most of the people that are supposed to have your welfare close to their heart, like a director of graduate studies or other people in the department, they’re all mandatory reporters, you can’t share this with any of them,” Tweed says. “Unless you want to go through this horrible process.”

Laura Kaufman, professor and director of graduate studies in chemistry, tells me that “there are a lot of faculty and students who feel uncomfortable with the idea that faculty have to report anything that is in a gray area.” As a regular faculty member, she would prefer not to be a mandatory reporter, but she understands why it is an appropriate duty in her role as a director of graduate studies.

“Students want advice. Students want to know: Is this weird? Students want to know: Have you ever heard of anything like this before?” she says.

Laura Dunn, a victims’ rights attorney and Title IX expert who founded SurvJustice, a nonprofit working against sexual violence, says she supports mandatory reporting policies, although she understands the other side’s concerns. “You could definitely set up a mandatory reporting system that creates silence,” she says. This may happen, she says, if a professor has to warn someone not to talk to them unless they want a Title IX coordinator to “show up and knock on your door with law enforcement.” Instead, she says, in universities that “do it well,” a Title IX coordinator will send a message directly to the student after receiving a report, letting them know they are welcome to come in and discuss the matter, along with resources. Columbia’s policy is similar to the latter.

“There's nothing offensive about proactively reaching out providing resources to people, because the alternative isn’t acceptable,” Dunn says. “The alternative of people never knowing their rights, never knowing their options, never knowing their resources—that can’t happen anymore.”

Julian Williams, the vice president for compliance, diversity, and ethics at George Mason University and former Title IX officer at Vassar College, says that mandated reporting ensures the Title IX office is kept in the loop. Otherwise, information might be passed from students to University employees without the University responding, which he warns could allow cultural issues to persist.

According to Peter Lake, the chair and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson, the University is not bound to a system of mandatory reporting for all faculty members by law. “The concept of a responsible employee is a regulatory requirement,” says Lake, who previously served as Stetson’s interim director of Title IX compliance. “So the prime motivation for a lot of schools that have those systems was the government told them to do so.” But this responsible employee can just be one person—a Title IX coordinator—based on current regulations.

The government never used the term “mandatory reporter,” Lake notes. “What I think [they] were trying to create was a responsible first responder,” he explains—someone who, if approached, would know how to proceed. Part of the training, Lake says, is teaching responsible employees what to do. Another element is “training responsible employees so that they can avoid putting people in traps, and make sure that they understand that before they share anything,” he says.

According to Lake, a school should strike a balance between confidential resources and responsible employees. If a university has too many responsible employees, it could even see an opposite effect—that reporting goes down.

Most students have concerns about mandatory reporting that are not only about the policy itself. They fear that the policy is paired with a system that they believe does not work and that they would not want to participate in, one that places a disproportionate burden on them throughout the process.

After they emailed her twice, Martyniuk told the EOAA she did not wish to proceed. They responded again, informing her they had the authority to pursue the investigation if they deemed it necessary, regardless of her wishes.

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