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Credit: Ananya Chandra

An annual report released by Penn suggests that during the 2016-2017 academic year, there was an increase in instances of interpersonal conflict reported to the University, but none relating to sexual assault or harassment. 

Every year, Penn's Office of the Ombudsman releases a report consisting of data related to various types of conflict brought to the office by students, faculty, and staff. The report for the 2016-2017 academic year highlights a growing number of complaints related to aggressive behavior and unfair treatment on campus. 

According to the same report, there were zero complaints during the year relating to sexual assault and sexual harassment. The report from the 2015-2016 academic year also recorded no incidents relating to sexual harassment

The 2016-2017 report from the Office of the Ombudsman was published in the Almanac on Oct. 10, but has not been posted on Penn's website like previous reports. 

The report breaks down data according to types of issues raised — relating to problems of behavior, academic disputes, and sexual assault — as well as according to types of people who reported issues, such as staff, faculty, and graduates.

“During the past several years, more and more of our visitors have complained about the way they were treated by other members of the Penn community,” the report reads. 

The notable spike in complaints of abusive behavior shown in the 2015-2016 report has continued this year.

The documents also indicate that since 2011, more than 40 percent of the annual complaints stemmed from staff members.

Comparing the 2011 to the 2016 data, reports of complaints relating to academic matters — such as denial of tenure and procedural irregularities — have decreased from 30 to 25 percent.

During the same period, complaints about general behavior have increased from 16 to 23 percent. Grievances connected to behavior include disrespectful treatment, bullying, and abusive language.

According to Associate Ombuds Marcia Martinez-Helfman, it is difficult to attribute these shifts in the reports to specific events.

“During different periods that our office has existed, some things seem to be more prevalent to others, but I can’t say why,” Martinez-Helfman said. 

According to the report, many questions or complaints related to graduate education are regularly brought to the office.

The report attributed such disputes between faculty and students oftentimes to “a lack of transparency” in the implementation of academic policies, especially in situations when there are a lack of written procedures.

“Too often, departments do not have detailed guidelines or handbooks that specify policies and promote consistency and clarity,” the report states. “Irregular contacts between faculty and students compound these problems. Post-doctoral fellows also have raised questions about their rights and responsibilities, complaining of their treatment by faculty supervisors.”

Credit: Ananya Chandra

The report also states that for the 2016-2017 academic year, there were no reported conflicts relating to sexual assault and harassment, though various undergraduate and graduate students at Penn have expressed experiences with sexual harassment in the past year. 

Earlier this year, four graduate students at Penn anonymously described incidents of sexual assault in a public survey. Later in the year, two students at the University Council Open Forum described their experiences with sexual misconduct and called on the administration to improve policies around reporting sexual harassment and assault. 

At the forum, Engineering senior Carolyn Kearney told council members that Penn does not currently do enough to ensure that students who have been victims of sexual assault are able to avoid interacting with their assailants while on campus. Kearney also said at the forum that the University has not been transparent in its rules around incidents of sexual assault. 

Graduate students have also petitioned for better sexual harassment policies in the Graduate School of Education. 

The Office of the Ombudsman is a neutral office, meaning it does not adjudicate matters or attribute responsibility, and it does not conduct formal investigations. Martinez-Helfman highlighted the office’s purpose as “to provide resolution between parties rather than dictate an outcome.”

“When we see recurring themes that we think might require attention,” Martinez-Helfman said, “we will try to identify individuals in administration who might have an interest in hearing what we hear and potentially taking steps to address the situation.”

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