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Credit: Ananya Chandra

The Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania published a petition in September calling for better procedures to report sexual harassment for students in the Graduate School of Education. This petition follows multiple allegations of sexual harassment perpetrated by faculty. 

GET-UP, a group of graduate students working to become recognized as a union, addressed the petition to GSE Dean Pam Grossman and called for her to “inform the GSE community as soon as possible about actions [she has] taken or [plans] to take to ensure that GSE students are safe from sexual harassment.”

Four months later, GET-UP is still waiting for a response. 

Grossman did not respond to immediate request for comment.

The issue of sexual harassment among graduate students at Penn recently surfaced, as a spreadsheet entitled “Sexual Harassment In the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey" included several allegations of harassment perpetrated by Penn faculty.

Miranda Weinberg, Ph.D. candidate and one of the petition’s five authors, said that there has not been any “tangible” change since the publication of the petition.

“I don’t know of anything that’s come of it,” Weinberg said. “Just sort of promises of ‘we’re working on it.’”

Executive Director of GSE Communications Kat Stein wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the school continues to follow the University’s sexual harassment policy.  

Stein added that, in November, GSE created a subcommittee on sexual harassment under GSE’s umbrella Committee on Race, Equity, and Inclusion to examine “better ways to communicate our processes” regarding sexual harassment. The committee has met three times since its creation.

The subcommittee is comprised of three GSE administrators and one student — petition author and GSE Ph.D. candidate Jennifer Phuong. 

Although Phuong agreed with Weinstein that there “hasn’t been much outward-facing change” since the petition was published, Phuong said that GSE administrators are “constrained” by the University-wide sexual harassment policy.

“The University has certain policies that they dictate, and then different schools have to follow them," Phuong said. “So we’re figuring out how to navigate certain policies Penn has that I don’t think are necessarily beneficial to students.”

One of the University-mandated procedures that Phuong thinks should be changed is the policy that all reports of sexual harassment must be brought to the dean of the student’s school, who has complete power to determine whether to conduct an investigation or to take any further action following the complaint.

“[Deans] are not necessarily experts in being able to handle sexual harassment and leading these investigations,” Phuong said.

Phuong is not alone in her opposition to this policy. In November, SASgov, the student government body for graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences, passed a resolution to petition Penn to change this policy “with the utmost expediency.”

In the resolution, SASgov suggested creating an independent body to deal with sexual harassment reports, which, unlike deans, would “not hold personal or professional power” over the student and would be “sufficiently trained in handling issues of sexual harassment with trauma-informed sensitivity.”

Credit: Lucy Ferry

Phuong, Weinberg, and the other three authors of the petition are all members of GET-UP and say that they believe that unionization will help graduate students achieve the September petition's aims. 

“The ultimate goal is a union contract which would have a grievance procedure laid out so that graduate employees who face sexual harassment know what the steps are,” Weinberg said.

Zachary Smith, a political science Ph.D. candidate, a member of GET-UP, and a signatory of the petition, agrees with Weinberg. Smith believes that a union contract with a clear grievance procedure will help combat sexual harassment by ensuring that “everybody is made aware of the rules.”

“A contract can create a situation in which advisors and [principal investigators] and supervisors are made more aware of what they can and cannot do,” Smith said.

Phuong said that the petition has received criticism for merging its cause with unionization efforts.

“There’s some pushback that we shouldn't have coupled sexual harassment with work, but that’s one of the main spaces where sexual harassment occurs,” Phuong said. “Sexual harassment is a workplace issue.”

Victoria Gill, a Ph.D. candidate and another petition signatory, said that she hopes the petition will encourage both GSE and Penn in general to build a policy that makes it “comfortable and acceptable” for people to report grievances.

“There aren’t that many support systems or even systems in place to deal with this issue,” Gill said. “That needs to change so survivors can feel safe to come out and speak about the harassment and abuses they face.”

Apart from Penn, there have been recent efforts to publicize sexual harassment in other universities. “We can try to make changes within our school, but the fact is that Penn has certain policies we can’t change,” Phuong said. “It’s not just a GSE issue.”

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