The dean of UW-Madison’s College of Letters & Science acknowledged this week a failure to provide a safe environment in the wake of a Wisconsin State Journal report on a culture of persistent sexual harassment in a university department.
One of the women who spoke to the State Journal also wrote an open letter to UW-Madison leadership, saying her efforts to report the behavior of one professor were met with skepticism from the department’s head and warnings from the university’s legal department that she would be on her own if she were sued by the professor for defamation.
“Due process cannot be a justification for inaction or a barrier to clear and confidential reporting options and tangible whistleblower protection,” former graduate student and current administrator of the art history department Clare Christoph wrote. “Without these, campus assurances that sexual harassment will not be tolerated will continue to be meaningless and women who experience this demoralizing and damaging behavior will not feel safe coming forward.”
The State Journal did not identify Christoph at her request in the article published Sunday. But she provided the newspaper with a copy of the open letter Tuesday.
In his monthly message to faculty and staff, Letters & Science Dean John Karl Scholz wrote that “no one at this university should feel constrained to come forward, as it seems some did over the years.”
“We have failed if colleagues or students must rely on a ‘whisper network’ to warn about harassment,” Scholz wrote. “We must create an environment where those who have complaints do not fear reprisal.”
The State Journal article revealed that a faculty review committee report released in February described the Department of Urban and Regional Planning as having a “legacy of sexism” that “requires immediate, serious attention.”
A subsequent consultant’s review published in July concluded the department fostered a “boys will be boys mentality” that normalized “toxic” behavior, based on interviews with 13 women, 10 of whom reported personally experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment.
One professor, 65-year-old Harvey Jacobs, was accused of staring at women’s breasts, making inappropriate comments about appearance and unwanted physical contact. Jacobs didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
In her Tuesday letter, Christoph wrote that when she reported incidents she had witnessed and experienced to a department head, associate dean and other campus officials starting in fall 2015, she was told she didn’t have enough evidence to file a Title IX complaint.
The department head, she wrote, said there might have been alternative explanations for the professor’s behavior including “maybe he just needs his eyeglasses adjusted” (to explain the breast staring), “he might be on the autism spectrum,” “he might just be socially awkward like Albert Einstein was” and “do you think maybe you’re more sensitive than other people?”
She was also warned the professor might sue anyone who brought defamatory allegations, that a Title IX complaint couldn’t be brought anonymously and that she wouldn’t be protected from legal fallout.
“After decades of an open secret and continuous reporting attempts, a person identified as a serial sexual harasser still teaches, mentors, and advises students, maintains access to women staff, and continues to collect his full taxpayer-funded salary,” Christoph wrote. “This is why the whisper network exists and why most victims give up, if they bother reporting at all: because leadership calls this ‘promptly and substantively’ responding to concerns.”
Ken Genskow, a professor in the urban planning department since 2005 and department head since late 2015 when he said he first heard informal complaints about staff members, told the State Journal previously his “response has been proportionate to the information that I had available to me.”
“I think we would have had more options open to us … had complainants been willing to pursue a formal process,” Genskow said. “But, respecting the decisions that they were making, I think I felt that we were taking the actions we could. I can see how that would be frustrating to someone who would want more expedient resolution, but … I felt my actions were appropriate.”
Genskow met with one faculty member multiple times, documenting concerns in writing and helping to set and monitor specific expectations for and constraints on behavior with primary support from others in the department, college and office of the provost, UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said Tuesday. Lucas did not identify the faculty member.
When the behavior did not meet expectations, the response escalated, Lucas said. A formal complaint against the faculty member was received by the provost’s office, but it has not been resolved.
University taking steps to respond
In his letter to faculty, Scholz listed steps the campus has taken “to more effectively prevent and respond to harassment,” including:
- Creating a full-time Title IX Coordinator position in 2015 and placing that position in a newly created Office of Compliance in 2016
- Requiring sexual harassment/sexual assault prevention training for graduate and undergraduate students
- Requiring sexual harassment/sexual assault prevention training for all employees, beginning in July 2017
- Updating policies on sexual harassment, including better defining which university employees are “Title IX responsible employees” and have an obligation to report complaints to the Title IX Coordinator
- Adopting a policy and grievance processes to address hostile and intimidating behavior
- Hiring two (for a total of three) additional victim advocates in fall 2016 in Survivor Services.
Centralized reporting system planned
The university also noted on its website Sunday that it is “continuing to look for ways to improve prevention and reporting of sexual harassment on campus” including creating a central reporting system and database for sexual harassment and sexual assault reports and complaints.
The university said it is “continuing the collaboration” between the Title IX coordinator and the human resources office to “improve record keeping, training and referral processes.”
The State Journal in August reported that UW-Madison does not require supervisors or human resources officials to keep records of anonymous sexual harassment complaints that are brought forward by students or employees.
Failing to document those cases could make it much more difficult for officials to know whether an employee has been disciplined for sexual harassment in the past, according to two experts on the federal gender discrimination law Title IX. They also warned that failing to record complaints could make UW-Madison vulnerable to lawsuits from harassment victims.
“UW-Madison is committed to an environment that is safe and free from harassment and intimidation,” Lucas said Tuesday. “We have emphasized to the campus community that it is more important than ever that departments, schools/colleges and the university overall pay close attention to concerns and complaints that are raised, including investigating and taking appropriate action in a timely manner.”