A Missed Opportunity: NASEM Summit on Preventing Sexual Harassment
Last week, I attended the 2019 NASEM Summit on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education. This is the first NASEM summit I’ve attended. NASEM hosts a summit for every large report they release, this one being a follow up to the 2018 NASEM report “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” It was hosted by the University of Washington and their Action Collaborative, a group of institutions committed to “address the problem from a preventative orientation.”
I was eager to attend the summit, although I honestly wasn’t sure what it was going to accomplish. At a glance, the panel sessions seemed to have the right titles and ask the right questions. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel it was a missed opportunity for real progress because of a refusal to understand what it means to truly center survivors in these conversations.
The NASEM Action Collaborative and the Summit are paying lip service to the issues of sexual misconduct in academia without truly taking the action needed to change the culture. The Action Collaborative strives to “address the problem from a preventative orientation,” which sounds like a noble goal but fails to recognize that the biggest problems are what is done when a survivor reports and how they are treated. Survivors repeatedly say that the process of reporting sexual misconduct is more traumatizing than the event itself.
“When we receive a report, we assume something happened” was a common phrase heard at the Summit in response to questions about the process of investigating reports. This is not a validating phrase. This is dismissive gaslighting, used to undermine the severity of claims while feigning concern for the survivor and to justify that an investigation nearly always ends in a “no finding” if it’s even investigated at all.
To borrow a metaphor from a dear friend and Edge for Scholars legend BethAnn McLaughlin, the Action Collaborative is brainstorming how to prevent future fires when the house is already burning…and expecting a pat on the back for it. We need action now on how to put out those fires and support the survivors, we cannot prioritize the prevention of misconduct when we’re currently responding to the survivors in horrendous ways.
Conversations were predictably focused on the concerns of protecting institutions, not the people in them. For every comment I heard at the Summit about wanting to support survivors, I cringed at a follow up about complaint validation, due process or legal protection for the institution. When administrators put an emphasis on protecting their institutions with the policies they create, survivors are not centered and are subsequently harmed. Panelist Jerika Heinze, the founder of the Fieldwork Initiative, put it best “we need to recognize that each victim is a human, not a statistic. The process of damage control is inhumane.”
These discussions were made more uncomfortable by the obvious disconnect between who an institution is and where accountability lies. When most people refer to an institution, they are referencing the network of administrators and policies that make up an institution and determine their actions in any given situation. Those administrators were in the room, still referring to the institution as a nebulous, undefined entity with a responsibility of its own. In reality, those administrators ARE the institution, and THEY hold the power to change the policies.
I want to see administrators apologizing for the harm their institutions have caused. I want to see administrators care more about the well-being of a survivor or whistleblower than if their existence will cause reputational or legal trouble for the institution. Instead, I saw administrators patting themselves on the back for just being in the room while all of them are failing to provide meaningful support to survivors, and some of their institutions are currently in the news and/or are being sued for mistreating survivors.
The biggest display of this disconnect was UW President Ana Mari Cauce’s closing remarks. She started with comments about how the “responsibility of changing culture & climate lies with us, but leadership needs the best policies & practices” but then spiraled into a defense of traditional academic structures that have been the breeding grounds for the high levels of power abuse and sexual misconduct.
I was not the only one with tears in my eyes as Cauce accepted the sacrifices of long investigations, the same ones that continue to traumatize survivors, as a trade-off for the privilege of the academy. “We tap dance around the fact that governance in academia is different. We have shared governance & tenure. They’re critical. But it does create unique challenges. Some of these are part of the price we pay for these benefits.” I am not willing to accept these terms. If the benefits of academia require structures that uphold power abuse and thus sacrifice the health and careers of those most marginalized, then those structures are not benefits. Survivors are not sacrificial lambs at the altar of academia.
Overall, the reality of what survivors endure when reporting seemed to be completely lost on the leadership and policymakers in the room. What else can be concluded when survivors are on stage begging for money to recover and for someone to care, while administrators chuckle at comments about the slow pace of progress and how patience is needed? As survivor Vassiki Chauhan said “for [survivors], it’s already happened. The pace is too slow.”
Without centering the voices of survivors and true accountability in leadership, science will continue to lose brilliant minds for the sake of protecting institutions and perpetrators. Before behavior can be prevented, survivors MUST be listened to and given a safe environment to report in.