A Call For Campus Safe Walks To Protect Victims Of Stalking

The following blog post, by Dr. Meghan Krausch (bio at the end), is only being published on our site, ConditionallyAccepted.com rather than on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (IHE). Meg is one of multiple bloggers contributing to our ongoing blog series on sexual violence in academia who have been asked by IHE to publish anonymously or pseudonymously for fear of a lawsuit or retaliation from the bloggers’ colleagues, department, and/or university. (Some have obliged, while others refused and withdrew their blog post from the series.) Meg has refused, opting to publish the essay here without anonymity. In what follows, Meg reflects on being stalked by a student, and calls for campus safe walks to better protect fellow victims of stalking.

Stalking on Campus: Safe Walks, Not Security

During the last week of classes of the fall 2016 semester, one of my students did something that I recognized as a stalking behavior. In the two months that followed, I exchanged dozens of emails and had several meetings with upper-level administrators on my campus about the stalking. However, almost nothing has changed.

I told my Dean and department colleagues that I no longer felt safe going anywhere on campus alone because I was being stalked and did not want to be murdered at my workplace. I was not being dramatic; murder is a real risk for someone being stalked — something I confirmed with two nationally recognized experts as I constructed safety plans. I spent the first month of the spring 2017 semester fighting with my university for accompaniment by security officers at low traffic times on campus. The university never expelled or suspended the student who stalked me; on the contrary, the administrators responsible for working directly with the student have worked hard to encourage him to continue his studies.

Throughout the semester, he attended classes as usual. Upper-level university officials in charge of security repeatedly told me that, if I was “that afraid,” then I could feel free to carry pepper spray to work because it is legal in my state. Further, they said that there is simply inadequate security to guarantee any response for anyone at 7pm at night (when my class ended); so I should, in no way, have relied on campus security to escort me or otherwise.

In the midst of all of this, eight people in my life so far — all women — have mentioned to me that they have also been stalked at some point in their lives, including one of the administrators in this conversation. It is not as though this is an isolated phenomenon or that I am the only person who will ever face this problem on my campus. Indeed, 6.6 million people are stalked each year in the U.S. according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Looking at these numbers, it is obvious that this has likely happened before and it will happen again on my campus. By refusing to make any institutional policies or changes, the university specifically avoided setting a precedent for a situation that will certainly occur again.

Is More Security the Answer — Especially for Feminists?

I am an antiracist feminist who believes de-policing is the only path to a just society. I am also an anarchist and sociologist who centers my thinking on populations who have consistently been marginalized by states and by police (which, after all, have their roots in slave patrols). As such, my understanding is that more police make a situation more dangerous rather than safer. However, the immediate need for escorting as a stalking victim put me in what felt like an outright contradiction: pushing for more security on campus. My fierce advocacy with the university on behalf of my own safety seemed to be just another example of “white feminism” — a betrayal of my previous work with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Make no mistake, the institution, as an employer, has a responsibility to guarantee me a safe workplace — one that is free from stalking. And, I do not think a prison-abolitionist feminist position requires me to relinquish that. However, it is important for feminists to recognize that we do not need to turn a call for safety into a regressive call for more law and order on our campuses, but can instead turn to another model which already exists on many campuses: safe walks. Stalking victims and others do not necessarily need a uniformed officer as an escort. All we really need is an additional person whose whereabouts are known to a central dispatch and who is equipped with a flashlight and a link to emergency services to walk us from place to place. Although it was easy for me to become caught up in the existing logic of asking for “security,” what is really needed is a proliferation of dedicated safe walk services like those that exist on many campuses already.

A safe walk service provides something closer to what a de-policed community looks like: community members connected to and looking out for each other in an organized way. And, there is no reason to wait until someone is actively being stalked to put this service in place because we can be sure that someone will need it in the future. If my campus had a safe walk service available, I could have begun using it immediately on the day that the situation began. This would have saved two months of meetings in which I tried to make plans for how I was going to get from class to class, to say nothing of the emotional toll I experienced during this period.

It is important to clarify that a dedicated safe walk service is much better than a system wherein the campus security suggest that they provide escorting to anyone upon request. One major difference is that campus security may not necessarily be prepared or staffed to provide the service (which is what happened in my case) and another difference is, of course, the one I argued above: one service is provided by a shadow police force while a safe walk is a community service.

Like most academic readers, when I imagined the challenges that I would face in my teaching career, I did not imagine stalking. I never imagined the sheer emotional exhaustion of having to make a daily safety plan with my department chair for accompaniment to each of my classes in order to be safe from my stalker in the halls of my building. In fact, I actually worked with stalking victims before I was an academic and had a sense of how common stalking is, but I still did not really think it would happen to me. I did not understand just how ill-prepared my institution was to deal with this situation. As a survivor, I am certain that if a safe walk service had simply been available on campus, then it would have been of invaluable assistance for me.

My story is one example, but I imagine that there are many people on campus in a variety of situations who could make good use of this service if it were simply available to them, without having to spend hours advocating for themselves and proving that they are in active danger as I needed to do. Safe walk services could be useful, for example, to students, faculty, and staff who are in fear when the threat of racist, xenophobic, or queer-bashing violence is on the rise on or near campus. (Think, for example, of the way some communities escorted women who wear hijabs immediately after the 9/11 attacks.) Advocating for safe walks is another case in which advocating for a service for “extreme” situations (e.g., stalking victims) would enhance the campus environment for everyone.

Author’s Bio:

Meghan Krausch is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Meg studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization.

Academic Blackballing – Censoring Scholars Who Critique Inequality

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Sandy Grande is a professor of education at Connecticut College, where she is also director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Ever since National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during a pregame national anthem last year as a form of protest against police brutality and racial injustice, he’s been the target of boycotts, death threats and fan backlash. Consequently, despite his talent and performance, he remains conspicuously unemployed, even while less accomplished quarterbacks have been signed. The situation has led many to speculate that Kaepernick is being blackballed and possibly even colluded against by the NFL.

Kaepernick’s story resonates with faculty members, particularly faculty of color, who have also suffered backlash for speaking out against injustices within and outside the academy. Some have similarly become the subject of national media storms, death threats and intimidation and found themselves suddenly unemployed.

While such severe cases capture the spotlight of media attention, I focus here on the more quotidian forms of backlash, or what I term academic blackballing: everyday acts of silencing, gaslighting, bullying and “mansplaining” that not only serve to marginalize and exclude but also limit or outright deny opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

As a professor who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I have been both witness to and target of academic blackballing, the experience of which, as detailed below, shares things in common with Colin Kaepernick’s.

Tone Policing and Victim Blaming

Just as Kaepernick has endured criticisms that he brought the blackballing on himself by choosing the “wrong” form of protest, professors who speak out are also often subjected to this form of victim blaming. The justifications sound something like this: “If only you had spoken in a more reasoned tone” or understood that “there is a time and place for everything,” because in the university “we” value “civil discourse and debate” and not “emotional” diatribes.

Such tone policing functions as a means of redirecting attention away from the injustice itself to the method of protest, a form of silencing that suggests emotion or expressed anger is what is intolerable, not the inequity, prejudice or bias that is being named. But what exactly is the “right” tone for expressing frustration over the fact that, in 2017, the professoriate remains more than 75 percent white and 60 percent male? That the college graduation gap for students of color is still growing? That ethnic studies still struggles for legitimacy in the academy? That (hetero)sexism remains rampant?

Lest we forget, Kaepernick chose a silent mode of protest and, in the month immediately following, 15 more black people died in encounters with police. What kind of measured tone should we, as a society, strike to raise questions about the nearly 600 Americans killed by police in 2017, particularly when the combined total of such deaths in England and Wales across a nearly 30-year span is 67?

History bears witness to the violence that nonviolent protest has generally garnered. Similarly, within college and university settings, it does not seem to matter whether one chooses a direct form of protest or plays the role of good university citizen — you still pay a price for speaking truth to power.

The Distraction

Kaepernick has also been labeled a “distraction,” meaning his politics distract from the teams’ focus on the primary work at hand: football. Some well-meaning “supporters” have even suggested that perhaps Kaepernick prefers his activist work to his day job. Outspoken academics, often perceived as “activists,” receive similar messages from their colleagues, and grad students from their advisers; they are told either tacitly or explicitly to concentrate on their work and leave their political activities for a more appropriate space and time.

The problem with such advice is that it fails to understand that we are women, people of color and otherwise minoritized faculty all the time, not just between the hours of nine and five. And whether we speak out while on the job or not, there are still consequences for just being who we are. The struggle to be perceived as rational, reasonable, collaborative and nonthreatening in environments where even the mere utterance of the words “racism” or “sexism” is experienced as injurious is constant. And the dilatory effects of carrying the weight of this struggle are well documented.

Conditional Acceptance

At the same time Kaepernick’s blackballing carries on, so does its denial, explained away through arguments that it is his lackluster performance and not his politics that is in question — despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, his blackballing is justified because it isn’t blackballing at all; it’s just what happens when (suddenly) your skills are found to be subpar.

Academics who speak out similarly experience the questioning of their qualifications and performance either directly through denied promotions or indirectly through the disparagement of their scholarly expertise. That is, in the court of public opinion, one is typically found guilty until proven innocent. To the extent that it does not seem to matter if words are misconstrued, taken out of context or grounded in empirical evidence and historical facts, institutions often capitulate to public outcry before they stand behind their faculty. The outcome is the same: if you find yourself the subject of academic blackballing, your skills — the ability to teach and conduct research in a manner suitable to your profession and field — will be called into question.

Paying the Price of Admission

Insofar as the default setting for American society is defined by hierarchies of race, class and gender, then the work of social justice, by definition, requires disruption. Yet disruptive actions, whether in the form of public protest or speech acts, are rarely experienced as necessary or productive interventions — as moving us toward more just and equitable outcomes. On the contrary, they are viewed as un-American, disloyal and uncollegial.

To be sure, under such precarious work conditions, staying silent and keeping one’s eyes focused on the “prize” of tenure, promotion or other forms of academic recognition makes sense. But for as long as racism, sexism and other forms of oppression continue to negatively shape the work-life conditions of both American colleges and society, there is a stronger case to be made for staging protests of multiple kinds. We need to keep speaking up and out because the alternative — the ascendance of the authoritarian state and the neoliberal university — is unacceptable.

That said, it is also incumbent upon people in positions of power to reject the narrative of “disruptive” acts or speech as categorically negative and unproductive and, instead, embrace it as an important and necessary strategy for positive change. They need to support faculty and staff who come under attack, because once threats of lynching, bombing, death and rape become the regular consequence for the expression of ideas, we will have solidified our decline into pure despotism.

Acts of disruption and pedagogies of dissent are vital to the health of a democracy. Thus, as faculty, we owe it to our students and society to insist on “thinking dangerously” and to engage critique as an essential mode of inquiry. We need to ensure that campus leadership understands that education has never been a neutral enterprise, diversity and inclusion are only starting points, and that study by definition requires struggle.

We need to recognize that the story of Colin Kaepernick is our story and work ever more assiduously to connect across various justice projects. The future of democracy and higher education depends on it.

Navigating Sexual Harassment In Academia As A Young Black Femme

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Gabi Jordan (a pseudonym) is an assistant professor of sociology. She studies race, ethnicity, gender and intimate relationships.

“Oh, you have everything going on there, don’t you?”

The above question took me by surprise. I was going about my usual routine in the campus writing center, checking in with student athletes and their graduate student mentors about upcoming assignments. My questioner had appeared from around a corner just as I was leaving a study room. With a smile, he gestured toward my face.

I laughed, awkwardly. It was immediately clear to me that the “everything” to which he referred were my nose and septum piercings, as I had become accustomed to people commenting on them regularly.

As I prepared myself to make an excuse to turn and walk away, he said, “You even have one in your tongue; let me see it.” The awkward smile on my face fell, and I choked out a short laugh. I felt frozen, unsure of what to do or what to say.

This older man was not my superior, but a coach for one of the university sports teams for which I tutored at the time. Though I had been warned that coaches should not be asking questions about student athletes, little direction was provided for how to avoid a coach if they did try to chat. As I mumbled about having students to check on, he reached out a hand towards my curly hair and inquired as to whether I was married or had any children.

I was able to end this encounter by entering another study room and checking in with some other students. But I spent the rest of my shift at the writing center feeling extremely uncomfortable and questioning whether I had done something to invite the coach’s comments and questions about my appearance and personal life.

This moment remains vivid in my memory because it is not the first time that I experienced unwanted attention in my workplace or other professional spaces. Truly, it is not the first time in my life that I have had my appearance discussed in a way that made me uncomfortable.

I am a light-skinned, mixed-race black woman who is visibly feminine, with big curly hair and what is considered to be both a “voluptuous” and “fat” body. Consequently, I have been subjected to aggressive street harassment, followed by men in stores, grabbed by men (and women) in bars, had students write offensive comments about me in their course evaluations, and witnessed rape “jokes” being directed at student athletes in the middle of a writing lab.

I have even experienced sexual harassment at the hands of fellow academics. For example, at the 2016 American Sociological Association annual meeting, I had the unfortunate experience of having a male professor comment on my “beauty” in the middle of a conversation about my research, with him reaching out to caress my face.

A lifetime of men (and many women, too) feeling entitled to make lewd comments or touch me without my permission has, in some ways, made me numb to the ways in which my body is viewed as accessible. My research on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality has allowed me to intellectualize why such harassment often happens. Yet even with the minor protections that an intellectual understanding of these experiences lends me, I continue to struggle with being socialized to believe that I am somehow complicit. I often feel guilty about wearing makeup and dressing in formfitting clothing, even as I wear high necklines and hemlines that come to the knee. Despite teaching my students about how the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers is part of an oppressive gender structure, I have a hard time not blaming myself for the harassment I experience.

My physical appearance remains a factor in everything that I experience in the academy, particularly the ways that my students and my colleagues find it appropriate to speak on my attractiveness (or lack thereof). My experiences contribute to well-documented evidence of the ways that femme people are subjected to particular kinds of surveillance and, subsequently, harassment and violence. My membership in a discipline that recognizes and produces knowledge about various forms of sexual violence yet also fails to address harassment forces me to realize that there are still many gaps in how sociology departments and national organizations take steps to protect scholars.

I spent most of my graduate training unsure to whom to report these encounters and feeling awkward about discussing them with my (black, cisgender) male adviser. That awkwardness mostly stems from my own insecurities about admitting that I am vulnerable rather than deficiencies on my adviser’s part; in bringing up my harassment, I confirm that I am a sexualized body. Due to having had colleagues who are men of color tell me that the racialized and gendered harassment that runs rampant in higher education is something that I should “get used to,” I feel hesitant to bring up how my appearance impacts my ability to teach, to network with others or to conduct my research.

When I did report to one of my university’s human resources offices, I was told that I was not guaranteed any anonymity and, in the case of the coach’s unwanted attention that I described above, he would be let off with what they called a “positive confrontation” that I was assured would not enter his employee record. Instead, I was moved to another writing center and forbidden to work with student athletes who were members of that coach’s team. Essentially, this suggested that I was actually at fault, rather than the man who invaded my personal space and asked me inappropriate questions.

A Call For Change

Considering that women and femmes of color in academe already must anticipate that they will be viewed as less capable based on racist and sexist assumptions, what steps can they take to care for themselves amid a culture that fosters harassment?

To survive and thrive in the midst of these issues, I find it important to note that I am not alone. A 2017 report from the University of Texas at Austin found that 22 percent of students have experienced harassment perpetrated by a faculty or staff member. To this end, I have relied upon friends and mentors as a source of support while navigating these experiences. They remind me when something I have experienced is not OK and help me determine how to report or confront sources of harassment.

For women and femmes of color to thrive in the academy, and within sociology more specifically, there must be structures in place to support mentorship and community building. For instance, having multiple women and femme scholars and allies to reach out to redistributes the labor that often is placed on a single faculty member of color to provide all emotional support.

Further, faculty advisers need to be sensitive to the specific kinds of harassment that women and femmes of color may be subjected to. Advisers and department administrators must actively work to swiftly and effectively address harassment at the hands of faculty and other superiors, as well as between graduate students.

These interventions are just a few that can reduce feelings that there will be repercussions for reporting or that someone being subjected to harassment is at fault. Recognizing this issue, implementing clear and direct procedures for reporting and reprimanding harassment, and encouraging those with social and institutional power to intervene and quickly shut down inappropriate behavior are small steps that can be taken toward making the academy a safer place.

Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

Does Title IX Silence Sexual Assault Survivors?

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Cybill Rights (a pseudonym) works with victims of sexual and intimate partner violence domestically and abroad. She also teaches about victimology to students and justice professionals.

As a criminologist who studies sexual violence in colleges, I was surprised by the way that universities implemented changes in response to Title IX legislation over the past few years. Title IX is part of a U.S. civil rights law, created in the early 1970s to address discrimination on the basis of sex in public education. Title IX also deals with sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence, as those actions impede a person’s (usually girls’ and women’s) opportunity to receive a quality education. Public universities must be in compliance with Title IX in order to receive public funding.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in response to Title IX complaints. The letter seemed promising, as it began with research on how often sexual assault is perpetuated in college (which is often), and then provided very detailed suggestions on how to confront sexual harassment and assault. I agree with some of the letter’s suggestions and disagree with others. My main issue with the changes is that universities interpret and/or implement them in ways that go against the knowledge and research on sexual violence.

Scholarly literature continuously asserts that sexual assault is a crime of power. Sexual assault takes away a victim’s power and agency. To assist with healing, we need to affirm survivors’ agency and re-empower them. And we do so by creating an environment wherein the person who experiences sexual assault feels safe and is able to make their own choices.

What does re-empowering a person who was sexually assaulted look like? In advocacy-based programs, re-empowerment entails an advocate listening to victims and speaking on their behalf, but not making decisions for them. It is about providing the person with options and letting them chose their own path to healing. They need to make both big and small choices, and often it is best to start small, such as preference for a meal.

Then, of course, there are the bigger choices regarding the incident, such as whom they choose to tell. They may or may not choose to tell the authorities (e.g., law enforcement). They may choose to report it to the university officials as opposed to the campus or local police. Here is where it gets tricky within the recent Title IX changes, namely the issue of mandatory reporting.

Mandatory Reporting

Mandatory reporting requires many university employees (including professors, staff members and resident advisers) to report if a student tells them about an incident of sexual assault. Institutions define slightly differently which incidents must be reported, but one thing seems consistent: the employee must provide the name of the student who disclosed being raped or sexual assaulted to the Title IX coordinator or someone of equal position.

This means that the choice as to whom the student tells their story is taken away from them. Their agency in that regard is essentially removed.

In addition to removing the students’ agency (read: disempowering them), mandatory reporting yields another set of concerns. The sexual assault victim often makes their initial disclosure to someone whom they trust. On college campuses, that can range from a friend to a professor. It is less common for it to be an authority figure, such as an officer or an administrator.

Research suggests that the first person a victim of sexual assault tells is extremely important. If that person believes them and is supportive, it facilitates the victim’s healing. A positive, empathetic response from the listener is paramount.

But mandatory reporting is not training employees to respond empathetically or even to engage in active listening. It is a requirement for employees to report someone else’s personal information, a potentially painful, traumatizing and embarrassing incident.

Here, the criticism of this policy can then be extended to a broader criticism of the university in that it tends to be liability focused rather than student focused. Mandatory reporting supports the notion that the employee is liable if they choose not to or fail to report. Depending on institution and the position of the employee, they may have little protection from censure. Of course, it could be argued that it is meant to protect students, but that is a paternalistic perspective that is not necessarily supported by extant research.

Suggestions for Re-Empowering Victims

What is the best course of action to make Title IX policies genuinely student focused, then? I offer the following suggestions for policy makers and universities based on my research on sexual violence.

  • Allow anonymous reporting. University employees should still be expected to report any disclosed sexual violence, but they should not be required to mention names if the victims prefer to remain anonymous. That protects students’ agency. It is their choice to whom they tell their story, but the university could still gauge the prevalence of sexual assaults on the campus on an aggregate level.
  • Train all professors, staff members and other employees (including Title IX coordinators) how to respond appropriately. That includes how to listen actively to sexual violence stories and to reject victim blaming and rape myths. They do not need to become victim advocates, per se, but their institutions should train them to respond empathetically. Universities should also provide them with a list of resources to give to the student who has been sexually assaulted. This information would include the Title IX coordinator and information about that office, but it would be a victim’s choice if they want to go the formal route.
  • Inform and support a student who formally reports a sexual assault about the process. Universities should administer anonymous or at least confidential surveys to the people who report. They could ask them how they felt they were treated during the process or if they felt justice was done. They can ask if they felt listened to and believed. They could ask them about what programs and policies they would like to see on the campus. From a procedural-justice perspective, victims feel better about the outcome when they are informed and involved in the process.
  • Focus on creating a campus culture that encourages students to come forward when sexually assaulted. Universities should create more safe spaces where students can express themselves freely and without judgment or recourse.

These are but a few of the ideas that are research supported. There are more — regarding the legal processes that are currently in place at universities — but that is for another post. To conclude, it is my hope that we can create an inclusive campus culture for all genders, which is what Title IX originally intended.

Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

Note: this blog post originally appeared on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Weaponizing Free Speech

The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors. Over the course of the last few weeks, this network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Johnny Eric Williams, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry and George Ciccariello-Maher are the most recent targets of the right’s campaign against higher education. As the attacks have spread and intensified, the American Sociological Association joined the American Association of University Professors in condemning the targeting of individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an excellent overview of why and how universities should support these scholars, and Eric Anthony Grollman offered a model for scholars to protect their colleagues from public attacks.

The specifics of these professors’ statements have been covered and analyzed elsewhere. My concern here is twofold. First, it appears that free speech is policed differentially based upon the identity of the speaker and whether they are supporting or challenging power. Second, the right is exploiting these manufactured outrages, using free speech as a wedge issue as part of their years-long strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself.

There is little doubt that some on the right disdain the institution of higher education. We, as faculty members, are regularly caricatured as effete, out-of-touch liberals with an overabundance of leisure and job security. By attacking faculty of color in particular, these organizations have brought a Southern strategy to higher education. Research shows that allegedly principled free speech arguments are often thinly veiled defenses of racist attitudes.

As Steven W. Thrasher argued in The Guardian, free speech is often a disingenuous framing device, with racial and ethnic minorities’ speech less likely to be protected. Wendy Moore and Joyce Bell document this selective application of free speech, showing that protected racist speech promotes a hostile racial climate. Campus Reform, the National Review and Fox News gamble, correctly, that the magic of racial alchemy will silence so-called principled free speech activists.

The disingenuousness of this strategy is apparent in the worry about hypothetical bias against white students, while ignoring the well-documented, ingrained, pervasive and routine bias against people of color on and off campus. The fake news outlets promoting these attacks outsource violence to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. They hope to silence critics and make an example of those who stand up. White supremacy becomes frictionless.

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors

The broader political climate has emboldened white supremacists. And their fellow travelers’ violent attacks from the right are supporting and driving official policies. The full impact on academe writ large is of course unknowable, but I fear their use in undermining tenure, diversity and the very notion of empirically verifiable knowledge. The well-publicized sabotaging of faculty governance and proposed cuts to funding are furthered by the selective policing of free speech. These manufactured outrages are quickly leveraged into attacks on higher education. Legislators have already seized upon them to call for the firing of tenured professors, and Trinity College has placed Johnny Eric Williams on leave. Those academics without the protection of tenure face greater speech restrictions, as they often lack even basic employment protections.

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Title IX And Your University’s Legal Counsel

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Sara Matthiesen is a postdoctoral fellow in American studies at Brown University. She has worked to secure Title IX and labor rights for graduate and medical students since 2012. She will be an assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at George Washington University beginning fall 2017.

As activists and legal advocates warned, the Trump administration has already done significant damage to civil rights designed to protect students. The news that the U.S. Department of Education is cutting back its investigations of claims is only the most recent example of just how little students and their advocates can rely on federal oversight. The withdrawal of Obama-era guidance on accommodations for transgender students and claims that gender discrimination in education is a matter of states’ rights have redrawn battle lines forged under the previous administration. While campus activists propelled that sympathetic administration to action through an unprecedented number of Title IX complaints submitted to the Office for Civil Rights, the blatant hostility of Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions is forcing activism back to the local level.

While efforts to oppose the administration’s attacks on Title IX and other enforcements against sex discrimination are vital, I am also welcoming a renewed focus on local accountability. Now that many more colleges and universities have dedicated Title IX offices and staff, it is time for activists to take a hard look at what it takes to make this work successful. For activists working with (and against) relatively well-resourced institutions, I suggest putting the spotlight on an overlooked but exceedingly powerful entity: your university’s legal counsel.

Unlike the highly visible offices of presidents, provosts and even Title IX coordinators who are routinely the target of student demands for accountability, university lawyers are often spared this external pressure, and only the most seasoned student activists even know such an office exists. This invisibility is structural and deliberate; unlike administrators, lawyers do not hold office hours, and many legal offices have an unofficial policy of not meeting with students. Those of us pushing colleges and universities to act in accordance with their values must start fighting this invisibility or we will continue to misgauge where the actual levers of power reside.

So, let’s take a moment to power map. Institutions that can support in-house legal guidance receive counsel on virtually all decision making — think faculty governance, real estate acquisition, financial aid and student conduct, for starters. A legal office evaluates everything from demands for sanctuary to unionization efforts to Title IX-related policies, with the aim of mitigating the college or university’s exposure to risk, be it legal or financial (and these often go together). The senior counsel is likely one of the institution’s highest-paid employees, and this position usually has a direct line to the president. This powerful office serves the institution; its obligation is to the university itself.

Therefore, the legal office has a fundamentally different aim than a Title IX office, which serves students, administrators and faculty members affiliated with the institution. A Title IX office is charged with making sure that incidents of gender discrimination are addressed promptly and equitably. This means, in part, facilitating a complaint process that balances the rights of all parties while resolving alleged policy violations related to Title IX. Ideally, this process is within a college or university’s Title IX office.

Given that, it is not difficult to imagine how a Title IX office might find itself at odds with the university’s legal representatives. To be sure, legal counsel is responsible for ensuring that the institution is in compliance with all manner of federal and state regulations, including Title IX, and so, in that respect, the offices’ aims align. When it comes to the specifics of individual cases, however, there will undoubtedly be competing risks with which legal counsel must contend.

Perhaps most obvious is the student or faculty member who retains a lawyer and threatens legal action. This instantly becomes the competing, more immediately pressing, risk of litigation. Litigation is costly; well-resourced colleges and universities hire external litigators when they go (or are taken) to court, which means institutions are paying an additional fee on top of their in-house expertise. This “threat” does not incentivize a Title IX office to re-evaluate its aims in the same way; its responsibility remains equity, especially in the face of litigation. When confronted with such power imbalances, the Title IX office is required to work toward restoring parity. Legal counsel, in contrast, works to inoculate the institution from financial and legal harm. Equity — especially when it is clear one party will not or cannot attempt to rectify the imbalance of their own accord — becomes a secondary concern.

Beyond the specifics of individual cases, climate and legal trends also influence a legal office’s risk assessment. By now, the backlash to colleges and universities taking Title IX seriously is in full swing, as groups like Save Our Sons and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education help popularize the argument that Obama-era guidance on addressing sexual assault often inherently violates students’ due process. Accused students with sufficient financial resources are increasingly lawyering up upon receiving a complaint, and lawyers are capitalizing on the narrative that Title IX protections imperil procedural fairness.

This climate only reinforces a Title IX office’s original aim to make sure that gender discrimination is resolved promptly and equitably, of which due process is a fundamental component. But for a legal office, this climate tips the scales towards one risk — legal action from an accused student or faculty member — and away from another — failing to uphold what is required under Title IX in every individual case.

Of course, all institutions must do the hard work of resolving competing aims. But when it comes to putting Title IX to work at the local level, numerous resignations of Title IX coordinators suggest which offices’ aims prevail when push comes to shove. While the documentary The Hunting Ground popularized a narrative about colleges and universities callously putting their brands and sports teams before their students, a far more mundane and inherently structural problem also necessarily curtails a robust implementation of Title IX. University legal offices and lawyers are not by definition malicious, but there will inevitably be cases that incentivize legal counsel to advise universities according to how best to avoid the immediate risk of litigation.

That can happen even when the law is on a university’s side, and even if it means sacrificing equity in a particular instance. And, because victims and survivors of sexual assault have largely turned to OCR for justice while respondents (the accused) have largely turned to the courts, avoiding litigation can mean bending a process for respondents and sacrificing equity for complainants simply because respondents are more likely to threaten suit. These are the instances in which a legal office — by virtue of its role within the university — necessarily imperils a Title IX office’s ability to ensure equity.

Thankfully, this problem is not insurmountable. Campus activists can take stock of their university’s legal representation to see whether campus lawyers have expertise in Title IX. This is a reasonable ask given that lawyers continue to play a role in Title IX implementation. They can work to make the relationship between legal counsel and the Title IX office transparent, to ensure that offices share a commitment to equity. Perhaps most important, they can call on presidents to weigh legal guidance and decide that weathering risk is worth institutional principles.

Campus activists have long made use of a vital tactic: holding the university to its stated values. For Title IX, this will mean ensuring that institutions commit to putting equity above risk even and especially in the face of legal action.