Staff Editorial: Departments should be proactive with sexual assault and harassment training

When we talk about sexual assault on college campuses, we’re usually talking about students. But allegations against the former chair of the anthropology department have given us a reason to think about the safety of our faculty and staff, too.

Brian Richmond, who worked at GW until 2014, reportedly sexually assaulted a non-GW affiliated researcher in September 2014. Granted, this alleged assault did not occur on campus and took place after Richmond had left the department – which makes this situation different from those professors may encounter.

But it still gives the GW community an opportunity to re-evaluate whether or not faculty and staff are sufficiently prepared to deal with these incidents if they arise. The University needs to take a more proactive approach to prevent sexual assault and harassment within its academic departments, regardless of how often those situations actually come up.

“All staff and faculty are expected to complete online learning modules that describe the rights, responsibilities and resources for individuals who are aware of or are victims of sexual assault,” Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad said in an email.

This module covers “a wide spectrum of issues” involving sexual assault or harassment, said Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and a professor of engineering.

“It gets into a lot of details. It has quizzes. It presents various situations,” Garris said. “It asks you to respond and it’ll tell you what the right answers are.”

It’s great that GW already has something in place to educate faculty. But having taken good-neighbor and alcohol-and-drug-education quizzes, most students know these online modules tend to be easy to get through without paying too much attention, and without absorbing too much.

In addition, it’s important that our professors have resources readily available, and know exactly how to deal with interpersonal situations in an academic setting. Last year, many faculty members confessed they weren’t sure what to do if a student came to them to report sexual assault. And some professors at GW were suspicious of Richmond’s behavior, but didn’t act. Clearly, there are gaps that need to be filled.

The University and individual departments need to work together to improve this system. There are certain things that GW can work to address more broadly, like making sure professors have all of the resources they need at their fingertips. While the University does have a sexual harassment and sexual violence policy, it’s very general, and focuses on the GW community as a whole.

Providing professors with material focused on their specific needs and options as faculty members would be a good place to start. The University plans to distribute a brochure to faculty and staff outlining their reporting responsibilities and resources, Muhammad said.

And given the large number of adjunct professors at GW, ensuring that they have the proper training and information should be up to the University, too. Even though many adjuncts spend less time on campus and are less involved in their departments, they’re still a part of this community. It’s possible that, like graduate students, adjunct professors are a more transient population – and perhaps officials should create educational resources just for them.

But each individual department also has its own responsibilities. In light of the allegations against Richmond, the anthropology department is taking steps to change its culture. The department has started teaching men how to treat female researchers respectfully, has been hiring more diverse faculty and staff and has completed workshops through the Title IX office.

Ultimately, these actions were reactive – and other departments should do their best to be proactive, instead. Department chairs know what’s best for their faculty, and each deals with unique concerns and academic environments. Coordinating with the Title IX office is particularly valuable, since departments can work with experts to develop the best course of action. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Title IX Office offer training classes to departments that request them, Muhammad said.

When dealing with this situation, the anthropology department went above and beyond. Richmond had a long history with the University and has been widely recognized for his research. But the department’s willingness to address this allegation regardless displays an important precedent: We need to take care of each other no matter how high-profile, or easy to sidestep, the issue is.

We can’t be sure how often incidents of sexual assault or harassment between faculty arise. But it isn’t a “flagrant problem” at GW, Garris said.

“If there were an incident like this, it would probably create a scandal,” Garris said. “If there were a perception that there was something like this going on, then through the grapevine there would be all kinds of talk. But there isn’t.”

But regardless of whether or not there are already problems within any department, or whether professors are open about existing issues, it’s extremely important for the GW community to be proactive. There’s never harm in doing more, especially when it comes to making sure that everyone on campus feels safe and knows that their concerns will be taken seriously.

Sexual harassment between faculty members isn’t just a problem for administrators to consider. This is something that students should care about, too. Since most students at GW are in the “at-risk” population for sexual harassment and assault, it’s important to recognize that these type of issues don’t occur in a vacuum. Once we leave college, we still need to be prepared to handle situations like these.

Furthermore, professors are at the crux of our education. If professors leave GW because of a difficult or unsafe work environment, students will suffer too. These types of scandals could erode students’ trust in faculty members, and could affect how students perceive certain departments. Something like sexual harassment may scare a student from getting more involved in a department, or going on a research trip.

This is a chance for students, faculty and administrators alike to get proactive. While it’s in the face of upsetting allegations, this is an opportunity we should use to better GW’s rules and avenues for reporting.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee, assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer and managing director Eva Palmer.

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