Chancellor Announces Actions to Address Issues of Sexual Harassment, Violence

UMass Amherst word mark

At the direction of Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, the campus is undertaking a series of steps to address concerns raised by graduate students around the issues of sexual harassment, violence and assaults.

The chancellor detailed the actions in a reply to the Graduate Women in Science Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Assault, which submitted its recommendations in mid-April.

“We are committed to creating a culture of respect, dignity and support on campus; one that is free from intimidation, retaliation, and fear,” the chancellor wrote to the panel, adding that his proposed changes will be shared widely with campus constituencies during the fall semester to ensure community involvement in the implementation process.

Subbaswamy appointed the 10-member task force last December to review campus services, policies and practices relating to the prevention and remediation of sexual harassment, assault and violence directed at graduate students.

Drawing on the recommendations of the task force, Subbaswamy outlined several initiatives to create an improved reporting process, promote awareness of behavioral expectations and develop more robust training for faculty and graduate students.

“These are intended as initial comments strictly associated with the Task Force recommendations, and do not reflect the full spectrum of our concerns and efforts related to sexual violence, harassment, and assault across campus,” he wrote to the panel. “I will continue to discuss these initial recommendations with the relevant members of the administration, Faculty Senate, students, staff, and other members of the University community who will be working to implement these and other changes.”

Subbaswamy added, “All of our efforts moving forward will be guided by best practices in conjunction with federal and state requirements.”

To improve the reporting structure, he said the administration is updating the Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment, and Related Interpersonal Violence and revising reporting procedures to clarify the process and timelines for responding to allegations of sexual harassment.

The proposed changes will be shared with the campus community, including the Graduate Student Senate, during the fall semester to allow discussion and comment before the revisions are finalized and put into effect.

In another effort aimed at improving student access and understanding of policies, procedures and resources, Subbaswamy said the Title IX webpage will also be updated.

As a follow-up to the spring semester restructuring of the Office of Equal Opportunity, the chancellor said the office is assessing and revamping its training programs and advocacy capacity. Implementation of those changes is expected to begin in spring 2019.

A recommendation of the task force to link the sexual harassment histories of faculty members to tenure and promotion decisions must go through the collective bargaining process, said the chancellor. “Prior to moving forward with this recommendation the University is willing, in consultation with Human Resources and OEO, to evaluate the effectiveness of this suggested procedural change,” he said.

In the area of promoting wider campus awareness of expected conduct, the provost, Graduate School dean and associate vice chancellor for human resources are leading an effort to develop supervisory and mentorship guidelines that more effectively delineate the roles and responsibilities of graduate faculty on supervision. The provost has recommended that faculty include Title IX information on syllabuses, a change that if approved by the Faculty Senate, could be in effect next spring semester.

The administration is also investigating alternatives to the task force recommendation that new employee background check authorizations include a release of prior employment records.

“One possible alternative we are exploring is to add a question to our standard application that asks whether the candidate has ever been disciplined for violating an employment policy,” said Subbaswamy. “Though this does not allow us to review personnel files, it does give us an opportunity to pause and ask additional questions should someone disclose a past violation of policy. As our application requires a candidate to attest that everything they have provided in the course of the application is true and accurate, an individual found to have lied about a past violation would face disciplinary action up to and including discharge.”

Following a legal review over the summer, a recommendation from the provost and Human Resources on the proposed application question is expected by Aug. 1, he noted.

Meanwhile, the Graduate School and Office of Academic Planning are planning to develop an exit survey for departing graduate students to provide useful information on improving academic programs and the student experience.

The chancellor said the administration also is discussing the need for more transparency about campus incidents of sexual harassment. “Any procedural changes will be made within the limits of both federal and state privacy regulations,” he said, “and, by the end of Fall 2018, the Office of Equal Opportunity will develop reports that can be regularly shared regarding cases in the aggregate.”

“Foundational to our efforts to create, support, and sustain a climate that enables all members of our campus community to succeed, is an emphasis on training or education on the context of sexual harassment in higher education,” said the chancellor, adding that collective bargaining and faculty consultation restrictions must be considered before a final plan is implemented.

Recommendations for mandatory requirements for faculty will be reviewed and assessed by appropriate administrators in conjunction with campus unions.

Additional Title IX training for graduate students through an online module on sexual harassment and assault is also planned. Student Affairs and Campus Life and the Graduate School, which are leading the effort, will consult with the Graduate Student Senate and pertinent Faculty Senate councils, with an eye to a spring 2019 launch.

Starting this fall, Subbaswamy said, the annual workshop for graduate program directors, which already includes a comprehensive review of reporting obligations and campus support services, will be revised to include training about the sensitivity needed as front-line respondents in cases of sexual harassment, including a clear understanding of process and awareness of their role in handling complaints and creating a positive department or laboratory culture.

Similarly, this fall’s orientation for incoming graduate students will expand to include a comprehensive review of Title IX, including reporting and support resources.