Dear Colleague

 

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

What is it going to take for a large group of people to believe that women of all races and many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community have been sexually harassed, discriminated against, and assaulted and then made to believe it was their fault?  We didn’t protest vociferously as we heard cases and allegations against Fox News, our current “president,” and Bill Cosby (2005 and again in 2015).  Do white women actors from Hollywood have a certain clout that is waking people up to the pervasiveness of workplace harassment (hostile work environment and quid pro quo), street harassment, and sexual violence?  We have to hope that the visible and audible outrage about the Harvey Weinstein case expressed in traditional media outlets and copiously on social media raise awareness and allow us to make real incursions into social and legal change.

I wrote last week about how unsurprised we should be about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged 30-year campaign of sexual harassment and assault.  The textbook elements of the case include: predatory and criminal behaviors enacted by those higher in the hierarchy on those lower in the hierarchy (power differential); the person harassed is taken aback by the situation and feels threatened, and therefore often doesn’t respond in a way that she might otherwise have done (she is hit by gender and/or race shrapnel); cronies of the higher-up accommodate the illegal behaviors of their colleague and maintain their own power (male networks of power and boys-will-be-boys attitudes); those who have been harassed and/or assaulted and are brave enough to speak out are silenced in any number of ways (threats; tabloids, black lists; lack of employment; etc.); society reinforces negative responses to the women who speak out (can’t take a joke; nags; drags; exaggerators; liars); the boss preys again.

I dare say that this The New York Times piece, which reports on Woody Allen’s BBC interview about the Weinstein case, reveals again how those accused of these serious crimes rarely understand what they did (or continue to do) wrong.  Allen states that he’s grateful for the work Miramax gave him after his own sexual harassment and violence cases, makes clear that no one should be interested in hearing these types of allegations (“You’re not interested in it.  You are interested in making your movie”), and warns of a “witch hunt atmosphere,” which sounds curiously like the “president’s” words about the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian involvement in our most recent presidential election. The New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens applauds Betsy DeVos for ending “a campus witch hunt” in her removal of Obama-era Title IX guidance for colleges and universities.  Who are the witches and who are the hunters here?  In this opinion piece in The New York Times, campus sexual violence researchers Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera insist that “Obama-era policies did not malign men.  What they did was make it easier for victims to come forward.”  The headline asks the poignant question, “Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?”

As I write in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, many people who are harassed have to change their daily paths to avoid the person in power and often have to turn down job opportunities that would require them to have contact with that person, thus permanently changing the course of the careers of the people who have been harassed.  These acts of avoidance occur in every career and on many college and university campuses.  The power systems set in place are replicated in the social lives of the students, thus demonstrating again the continuum through which sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are linked to sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we don’t take issues of harassment and discrimination seriously, then we will not get at the enormous problem of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Sexual harassment in the higher education context is important for many reasons.  Turning a blind eye to it reinforces for young men, women, and people of all genders that young men are supposed to have, exercise, and retain power, both during the college years and beyond.  It sets the tone for the workplace, since we presumably are educating students to be the workers of tomorrow.  The blind-eye habit in higher education also sends a message to students in middle and high schools that boys have the power and girls should shut up.  This doesn’t bode well for their futures in higher education and/or the workplace.  The sexual harassment problem in Hollywood, at Fox News, in the White House, and in so many other industries, simply reproduces itself in other power-dependent settings, like schools.

President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 (now included on the Office of Civil Rights’s website only as “archived information”) sent a direct message to United States colleges and universities that the reduction of sexual assault and sexual violence on higher education campuses was a priority for the Obama administration.  The “significant guidance” included in the letter comes with great detail, and in the second footnote of the document, sexual harassment is directly linked to sexual violence and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is invoked.  In other words, the document recognized the more acute context for people who find themselves at the intersection of gender, race, and/or national origin. These moves, along with the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, reveal the Obama administration’s understanding of the problem and the seriousness with which the administration approached recommendations for adjudication.  I strongly recommend this 19-page document to anyone interested in reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and violence and in understanding links between and among Title IV, VII, and IX law.

Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See this previous post on DeVos and public education.)  DeVos has replaced the “Dear Colleague” guidelines with a Q&A document, which arguably creates a “both sides” false equivalency that had been eased by the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See Jeannie Suk Gersen’s and Christina Hoff Sommers’s support of “both sides” approaches. )  One report cites “confusion over specifics” of the interim guidelines provided by DeVos’s office.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s September 11, 2017, commentary by Scott Schneider analyzes in legal and practical terms “what DeVos got wrong in her speech on the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”  Information and clarifications have come out in drips and drabs (e.g. this updated piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education), thus sowing more confusion and making victims wonder whether it is worthwhile to report traumatic incidents of sexual assault and violence.  A reporter from The Chronicle has chronicled his numerous attempts to get straight answers out of the Education Secretary.

DeVos’s replacement of the Obama-era guidelines (both 2011 [“Dear Colleague”] and 2014 [Q&A format for clarification of “Dear Colleague”]) speaks again to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s idea that the current “president’s” “presidency” (quotation marks around these words are mine) “hinges on the fact of a black president” and “has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own” (these brilliant quotes are from Coates).  Recent college graduate Jamil Smith in this piece in The New York Times states that:  “Instead, my experience taught me that we need to be proactive in preventing sexual assault, and much of that involves something that should be a natural fit for college campuses: education. The workshops I taught to captive audiences of fraternity brothers are a start, but even they weren’t enough. Rape prevention education should be more than an hour, and it should be mandatory for everyone, not just those involved in Greek life. And beyond the legal landscape of sexual assault, men should be disabused of the beliefs that lead to it and should be required to understand its effects on victims.”  The United States could clearly use several thousand more Jamil Smiths, young men who understand structural oppression of women and do something to change it.

DeVos has taken her marching orders from this “president.”  It’s time to dance to an entirely different tune.  Let’s get it right here, on campus, the place guided by lofty mission statements that usually assert that we are all people.

P.S. After this blog post was published, I saw Professor Mikki Brock’s excellent piece on witches and witch hunts in The Washington Post.  Check it out!

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2 thoughts on “Dear Colleague”

  1. My dearest Ellen, thank you for your inspirational message. You words went from my head to my heart. God Bless you!!!! Love you, Missy

    Like

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