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UMass investigated 21 grad student complaints about sexual misconduct against faculty 

  • UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy addresses guests Aug. 29, 2017 during the annual Community Breakfast jointly sponsored by the college and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.



@dustyc123
Tuesday, December 05, 2017

AMHERST — During the last five years, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has investigated 21 sexual harassment or misconduct complaints filed by graduate students against faculty and staff, according to figures obtained by the Gazette.

The numbers offer some insight into what some graduate students have described as widespread sexual violence on campus, though one legal expert and a graduate student activist say the data provide an altogether incomplete picture.

At an October town hall event at UMass, members of the group Graduate Women in STEM, or GWIS, asked UMass officials tough questions about sexual misconduct on campus, particularly in their fields of science, technology, engineering and math. One of the first questions posed to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy was to provide specific examples of faculty who have ever been found guilty of sexual misconduct, and the consequences.

Subbaswamy answered indirectly, saying that there had been around 32 complaints brought against faculty since 2012. The Gazette recently obtained a more specific breakdown of the complaints Subbaswamy was alluding to at the time.

From Jan. 1, 2012, through Sept. 28, 2017, 34 complaints were filed with UMass Amherst’s office of equal opportunity and diversity, according to data the university provided to the Gazette.

Of those 34 complaints, six were not related to faculty or staff, so they were referred to the dean of students’ office. Seven more complaints did not relate to sexual harassment or misconduct.

That leaves a total of 21 graduate-student complaints for the period, two of which were against the same person. Those cases include complaints brought under Title IX — a federal education law that protects people from discrimination based on gender — and under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

Of the 21 complaints, three are currently under investigation. Nine cases “ended after discussion and agreement of the parties involved,” two cases were dismissed after review and in four cases no formal complaint was ultimately filed, according to the university.

In three other cases, the subject of a complaint decided to retire from UMass, which ends the university’s proceedings against that employee, according to university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. Those retirements were individual decisions, Blaguszewski said, adding that when a faculty member facing a complaint retires, the office of equal opportunity and diversity advises the student who submitted the complaint of their other possible options, including filing a complaint at the state or federal level, or hiring a personal attorney.

The university has declined to give any further details on the university-wide statistics it provided.

“The university’s investigative and disciplinary process is governed by state and federal law to protect privacy, which restricts our ability to divulge details of cases,” Blaguszewski said in a statement. “When charges are reported, the university vigorously pursues every claim. We are reviewing the Equal Opportunity and Diversity process to determine how best to resolve cases as quickly as possible.”

Inconsistent with reality

While the numbers reflect new information that previously wasn’t public, some have questioned to what extent that information is even helpful.

“I think that just given the sheer number of people I know who go through this, the number of individuals who I have dealt with recently just over the past year and a half who have had these same types of complaints, I can only say that those numbers are absurdly low,” said Joelle Labastide, a biophysics postdoctoral research fellow at UMass and GWIS co-chairwoman. “It’s just absurd, it’s so inconsistent with our reality.”

When looking at the numbers UMass provided to the Gazette, Sheerine Alemzadeh, a legal expert on workplace sexual violence, said a few big questions immediately jump to mind.

“Has there been any disciplinary action taken against anybody? Because it doesn’t look like it from the numbers,” said Alemzadeh, of Chicago, who is also the co-director and co-founder of Healing to Action, a nonprofit seeking to build a worker-led movement to end gender violence.

Alemzadeh also said the university’s data don’t really provide a clear picture of the possible extent of sexual misconduct on campus. One reason for that is underreporting — a phenomenon typical with complaints of sexual violence.

“I think they probably don’t reflect the actual number of incidents just because, statistically, that is unlikely,” Alemzadeh said.

Vulnerable to pressure

As many as three-quarters of victims of sexual violence never come forward with their allegations, Alemzadeh said — a reality exacerbated by concerns about retaliation or damage to careers. Graduate student workers are particularly vulnerable to those pressures, she added.

“It’s sort of a double whammy for graduate students,” she said. “They’re in a really, really vulnerable position.”

She said the students might worry about losing their jobs after coming forward with allegations, and likely also have concerns about how it will affect their futures in the hypercompetitive environment of academia.

“There’s this idea that your entire professional future sort of rests in the hands of these people who are your advisers — they’re your mentors,” Labastide said. “In STEM, it’s kind of awkward because they’re also your employers.”

Labastide said she doesn’t doubt that those at the university involved in remediating these claims are doing their best. But she said the complaint process takes too long, and grad students don’t trust that the hard work of following that process is going to end with a satisfactory resolution.

“The system is just so inadequate that it just does not matter,” she said.

In her previous work, Alemzadeh was a lawyer representing workers in employment cases, as well as students in Title IX cases. She said institutional investigations will always have some degree of bias.

“No matter what process you have, there’s an automatic defensiveness and reputational interest in making sure these things don’t come to light, and trying to make sure they get resolved in a way that doesn’t bring attention to the institution,” Alemzadeh said.

In that context, Alemzadeh said she wonders what exactly it means when the university says that nine cases “ended after discussion and agreement of the parties involved.” Speaking generally, she said that in her experience as a lawyer, many of her clients experienced explicit or implicit pressure from their institution to drop complaints, though she made clear that she has no idea whether that would be true of any case at UMass.

“It’s very unclear what led to those outcomes,” Alemzadeh said, adding that it would be difficult to ever find out those details without speaking to the people involved in a case. The university, citing privacy laws, did not disclose the faculty who faced complaints or other specifics about those cases.

“That’s just the shortcoming of having these kinds of statistics,” Alemzadeh said. Only in speaking to victims directly, she said, can investigators start to paint a clearer picture.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.