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Report raps culture at UMass polymer science department

  • The Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • The Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research at UMASS Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON



@dustyc123
Friday, August 10, 2018

AMHERST — A newly released report on one of the University of Massachusetts’ most prestigious departments — Polymer Science and Engineering — has found “conduct antagonistic toward women,” uncivil behavior toward staff, and communication and leadership problems.

Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, and Bryan Coughlin, department chairman, commissioned the “climate assessment” report after several sexual-misconduct complaints involving Polymer Science and Engineering, or PSE, faculty were filed with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. Sepler and Associates, which works on behalf of employers to investigate harassment claims, among other issues in the workplace, conducted the report and released it on Aug. 3.

Serio declined an interview request from the Gazette, but in a statement she called the report a “pro-active first step.” The communications chairwoman from the UMass Amherst organization Graduate Women in Stem, or GWIS, praised the effort but said the report overlooked some important concerns.

For nearly seven months, the Gazette has pressured the university for the release of documents related to the sexual misconduct complaints that spurred the commissioning of the climate survey, and complaints against one person in particular. The Gazette also requested information about any disciplinary actions taken in response to those complaints.

As of Thursday, the Gazette had received and appealed two denials from the university. In response to the university’s denials, the Public Records Division of the secretary of state’s office has twice ordered UMass Amherst to turn over the records or some portion thereof.

In response to the Public Records Division’s latest order, issued July 23, Associate Chancellor for Compliance Christine Wilda responded on Aug. 6 with a one-sentence email: “On advice of counsel, the University declines to produce the requested personnel records.”

The Gazette has again appealed to the Public Records Division and is awaiting a response.

The interviews

In her statement, Serio cited a National Academy of Science report that found sexual harassment in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — limits the advancement of those disciplines nationwide. That report called for sweeping reforms in academia to address the problem.

The climate survey’s findings include incivility and disrespect for women among “a minority of faculty,” “communication and conduct antagonistic toward women,” ineffective communication, “deficiencies in skills that affect the experience of students,” a rigid hierarchy, insufficient support for first-year students and “uncivil behavior toward office staff … to be tolerated as a condition of employment.”

The report is based on interviews Sepler and Associates conducted with 51 people, who remained anonymous in the study. An exception to the anonymity would be “any report … of situations or behavior that might represent a risk to someone’s health or safety.”

Christie Ellis, the communications chairwoman for GWIS, said that caveat may have prevented some interviewees from being entirely candid with Sepler and Associates.

“I think they may be neglecting that people in the department … are not in a position to safely share things, necessarily,” Ellis said. “Those people who are already afraid of reporting are not going to report things to them.”

Ellis was referring to a section of the report’s executive summary that describes the extent of problematic behavior toward women, which she said doesn’t match the concerns that GWIS members have raised.

“We found that most of those concerns have been circulated and amplified by individuals without firsthand knowledge, and in many cases were exaggerated,” the report says.

The report gives several instances of sexist behavior in the department, where only three of 25 total faculty members are women.

Those instances include a male professor calling allegations of rape and sexual harassment an “unnecessary distraction for students,” dismissive attitudes toward gender-based affinity groups and other “insensitivity, inappropriateness or microaggressions towards women.”

“The perceived significance of these instances varied considerably,” the report says. “Those who have broader concerns about the department’s climate presented these instances as evidence of prevailing problems. For others, they were presented to suggest that a few insensitive individuals in the department were outliers.”

The report also found a “surprising lack of deep interest in or comprehension of the challenges for women in STEM” among faculty.

Other concerns  

Relating to the department’s structure, the report concluded that there is a highly individualistic culture in the department, where students and faculty can often operate in isolation within their respective research groups. That can result in faculty being unaware of the more general climate of the department, the report says.

“Another way to look at this phenomenon is that most of the faculty individually are not attentive to problematic behavior in their peer group, and the faculty as a group has failed to foster a collective responsibility for the resulting departmental climate,” the report reads.

The current hierarchy has given some faculty “a degree of privilege that results in impunity for conduct ranging from arrogance to incivility,” the report concludes.

Regarding departmental leadership, the climate survey cites a lack of communication among leadership, faculty and other communities in the department. One impediment, the report says, is a “murky understanding of confidentiality,” and that the department chair’s “near-blanket approach to confidentiality about investigations” has provided “fertile ground for separate, uncontrolled narratives to develop.”

“Confidentiality has been used as a reason not to address subject matters, e.g., a given complaint of inappropriate conduct,” the report says. “Departmental leadership appears to need and desire the development of skills that would enable meaningful communication about a subject without divulging specifically confidential details.”

The report also criticizes departmental support for students with concerns about their mental health, for first-year students, and for students and staff in the department who feel mistreated. That lack of support is contrasted with “impressive” support for graduate students in their final years in the department, the report adds.

Recommendations

Among the report’s final recommendations are that the whole department receive training on implicit bias, microaggressions and civility, and that the training include strategies for peer or active bystander training.

Other recommendations call on the department to take several steps: to form a committee to examine and address the departmental climate, to develop an internal process to address disruptive conduct, to consider increasing student support resources, and to form a joint faculty-student committee to examine improvements to cumulative exams.

Ellis, of GWIS, lauded the idea of bringing in an outside firm to get their perspective. But she questioned why the report’s recommendations consisted mostly of initiatives for the department itself to undertake, when the same report also identified that the department has a substantial lack of awareness of its own internal climate.

“I think they’re putting a lot of trust, a lot of responsibility, (in the department) to fix itself when it hasn’t shown that it is able to do this in the past,” Ellis said. “But if awareness is the issue, they certainly are aware of it now.”

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