Graduate, professional students discuss sexual misconduct

COGS and PSG held a town hall meeting Tuesday to address graduate and professional student sexual misconduct and the power imbalance between these students and faculty members.

Tina Marisam, director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the University, speaks at a town hall on Tuesday, Feb. 19. Professional Student Government and The Council of Graduate Students held the meeting to discuss concerns about sexual misconduct on campus.

Jack Rodgers

Tina Marisam, director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the University, speaks at a town hall on Tuesday, Feb. 19. Professional Student Government and The Council of Graduate Students held the meeting to discuss concerns about sexual misconduct on campus.

Kait Ecker

University of Minnesota graduate and professional students recently discussed the power imbalance between graduate and professional students and faculty members that sometimes leads to sexual misconduct.

At Tuesday’s town hall, graduate and professional students addressed a new referendum, concerns of retaliation upon reporting, culture change and details of the University’s system for addressing sexual misconduct. The Council of Graduate Students and the Professional Student Government held the meeting to clarify the sexual misconduct reporting process, answer questions specific to graduate students and raise awareness about resources. 

In 2017, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigated complaints of sexual misconduct made against Gianluigi Veglia, a tenured biochemistry professor, and Randy Handel, the associate athletic director. The EOAA concluded that both Veglia and Handel had violated the University’s sexual harassment policy. On the heels of these findings, the University established the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct in 2017. 

These cases sparked concern and drew attention to the problem of graduate and professional students experiencing sexual misconduct from their professors or advisers.

“The reality is [sexual misconduct has] always been creepy,” said Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center. “It’s never been fine. We just have people who are tired and are willing to actually say ‘stop it.’”

The power gap between graduate and professional students and professors puts students in a vulnerable position and makes it difficult to report, according to discussion at the town hall. For graduate students, retaliation could be detrimental to their careers if it means losing authorship on a study or paper, being bad-mouthed in the professional community, losing funding or not getting a recommendation letter. 

As a way of addressing sexual misconduct, COGS voted to put a referendum on the All-Campus Election ballot.

“Should tenured faculty be held to the same standard as non-tenured faculty and staff when accused of sexual misconduct involving a student?” the referendum question reads.

After the town hall, COGS achieved the 400 signature threshold. The question will be on the ballot for the March 11-15 voting period. 

“We think this is the most powerful tool to get the attention of the members of the University’s communities,” Sean Chen, president of COGS said. “We hope that this question on the referendum can give students a platform to speak up to vote ‘yes’ to this question, so that it can present the seriousness of this problem to a wider University community.”

Although tenured and tenured-track faculty go through essentially the same process when faced with a complaint of sexual misconduct as non-tenured faculty and staff, the reality is a little more nuanced, according to discussion at the town hall.

Non-tenured faculty and staff have the possibility of not having their contracts renewed, but tenured professors don’t need to worry about this, Chen said. 

“Tenure system overall is good in theory. It’s to protect faculty members’ academic freedom so they can conduct cutting edge research without fear,” Chen said. “I think most of the tenured faculty members are wonderful mentors, are experts in the fields; however, the overall structure of the tenure does in a few cases protect faculty members from sexual misconduct, from giving them sanctions.”

After experiencing sexual assault, approximately half of graduate students told someone, compared to approximately 61 percent of undergraduate students, according to the 2018 College Student Health Survey.

“You can’t talk about sexual harassment, especially in a graduate student context, without also talking about retaliation. We know that for many graduate students, especially if they’re experiencing sexual harassment from their adviser or another key faculty member, it could put them in a situation of great vulnerability to report sexual harassment,” said Tina Marisam, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Title IX coordinator.

The values of transparency, accountability, representation and privacy must all be considered while navigating within the confines of the law, Marisam said. The town hall panelists said reporting to the EOAA is not a completely confidential service, but that reporting to the Aurora Center is.

Changing campus culture will also be imperative when it comes to prevention of sexual misconduct, said Karen Miksch, co-chair of the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct.

“We know [that] to really bring about culture change there needs to be embedded in our value system this idea that sexual violence, racism, sexism [and] other forms of discrimination and harassment are not acceptable,” said Miksch.

People who would normally engage in sexual misconduct won’t do so if they’re in an environment where they will be held accountable, Eichele said. After students vote on the referendum, COGS will bring forward a resolution to propose policy changes, Chen said. It will go through a voting process within COGS before going forward to the Board of Regents.

“We all need to be prepared for someone to need us and tell us their story,” Miksch said.