More on reporting

I was shocked to see this list by the Globe and Mail. I try to remind myself that it probably was not meant to be exhaustive because certainly there is not only one case of sexual harassment/assault in academia that made the headlines (one thinks of Colin McGinn and other cases, some closer to home). My response to that list was: of course! Universities are experts at covering up such cases. Anyone heard of “passing the trash”? That is when a university or college decides to help a faculty member move institution by covering up their past inappropriate behaviour so that the problem ceases to be theirs.

Are universities particularly problematic spaces with regards to handling harassment? Are they experts at covering up? This piece claims that they are. Policies and processes are quite convoluted. Beyond that, there is also the fact that the treatment of complaints is very different than public court cases. Investigations are conducted by people who may or may not have the proper training (despite all their good will and time investment which can be huge) and outcomes are kept under the veil of confidentiality. For a victim of harassment or assault that is investigated by university processes, there is no closure to be expected since whichever consequences the guilty party may have to face (if any) will be kept confidential. If one brought a case to court, by contrast, one would know what the sentence is. Therefore, to add insult to injury, victims may see their complaint validated by a report that acknowledges that harassment took place but they have no way to know what the consequences were for the guilty party. They may continue to see that person enjoy all the rights and privileges of their position in their employment while they will carry the stigma of having suffered the harassment and perhaps the stigma associated with having complained.

Feminist Killjoy has a great entry on what further injury victims of harassment and assault suffer through complaining about their ordeals. One can be blamed by others (fellow students, co-workers, supervisors) for reporting inappropriate behaviour. The advice sometimes received: don’t stir the pot, keep your head down, get through this and move on. The blame complainants have to take can take subtle or less subtle form, from micro-agressions that seek to undermine the individual personally and/or professionally to complete ostracism. They can be blamed or met with disbelief by officers to whom they report (“Are you sure you are not making a big deal out of nothing? Think of that person’s reputation which you are likely to tarnish with your complaint! Etc.”) Often times, and most dismaying, such blaming can come from peers who are also being harassed. In such cases, the person who braved the system and possible negative consequences of reporting and did file a complaint is further hurt by the lack of support offered by the people they were also seeking to protect.

This indicates that there is a lot of work needed in terms of reflecting not only on policies and procedures for reporting but, more fundamentally, reflecting on ways to establish a culture of protecting people who complain (it is never easy), ensuring they are heard, supported, and believed, and that the whole community works toward valorizing reporting and toward establishing a culture in which reporting won’t be needed after all.

Categories: Blog