Letter to the editor: How can students help prevent sexual misconduct at the University of Minnesota?

As president of the Council of Graduate Students, I believe our proposal can help strengthen the sexual misconduct sanctioning process at the U.

Letter to the Editor

In the 2019 All-Campus Election, the Council of Graduate Students (COGS) sponsored the following referendum: “Should tenured faculty be held to the same standard as non-tenured faculty and staff when accused of sexual misconduct involving a student?” in response to a May 2018 City Pages article on a series of cases where University of Minnesota tenured faculty committed appalling sexual misconduct against students. With the awareness we helped raise, the referendum passed by an extraordinary margin of 3290-126, a demonstration of strong student feeling on this issue.

The referendum is one of many actions COGS has embarked on to prevent sexual misconduct. We have been an active partner of the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct (PIPSM), a vibrant initiative under President Kaler which will soon transition to a permanent structure under President-designate Joan Gabel. In collaboration with our peer Professional Student Government, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) and the Aurora Center, we hosted a town hall for students on preventing sexual misconduct policy and resources. I also appreciate efforts by our peer Minnesota Student Association.

With the mandate of the overwhelmingly passed referendum, COGS led a thorough discussion among our members and passed a pair of important resolutions collectively called “Fairness, Action, and Improvement Regarding Sexual Misconduct Sanctioning Process” — in short, FAIR Resolutions. The first Resolution advocates for fairness and mandatory student consultation in adjudicating a case between a faculty member and a student. At the moment, final decision makers such as college deans are only required to consult with peer faculty but not with students on what are appropriate sanctions. This is an intrinsically unfair “jury” for students and can lead to weak sanctions. We strongly believe that in conjunction with appropriate redaction protecting the privacy of the respondent, mandatory consultation with students can improve fairness, enhance transparency, build trust in University community and encourage more reporting.

The second FAIR Resolution advocates for automatic suspension of graduate student advising status of an accused faculty member. This is a particularly important protection for graduate student victims given the power differential between tenured faculty and students. Accomplished faculty members facing investigation can often choose to quickly “jump the ship” to another institution amid investigation to avoid an outcome. When they leave, the case has to close and will remain private under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). Automatic suspension of advising status is a sanction that will be publicly accessible upon request under the MGDPA. It can also prevent faculty members from saying they have such advising status when they want to transfer to another institution. Faculty-to-faculty peer pressure of losing advising status can also help deter future misconduct.

On this topic, I have enjoyed productive conversations with various stakeholders, including the EOAA Director, the PIPSM team, President Kaler and President-designate Gabel. They principally welcome our ideas and look forward to implementing them into University policy. I believe these student-led proposals are of great help to our collective efforts to bring a brighter future and a campus free of sexual misconduct to every Gopher.

Sean Chen is president of the University of Minnesota’s Council of Graduate Students.

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.