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Penn is moving to centralize all reports around sexual misconduct in a single office. Some graduate students say they have their reservations on whether this will be helpful. Credit: Carson Kahoe

Penn may soon have a centralized office responsible for handling sexual misconduct complaints across the University. 

Joann Mitchell, Penn's chief diversity officer and Wendy White, senior vice president and general counsel for the University, presented a proposal for a centralized office to both the Faculty Senate Executive Committee and members of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly last week. 

The proposed office will consist of a single staff member who will act as the first point of contact for any complaint or question relating to possible sexual misconduct, Faculty Senate President Jennifer Pinto-Martin said. It will also serve to provide a central location where faculty, students, and staff can lodge complaints without having to go through another administrator. 

The proposed change at Penn comes amid a yearlong campaign led by Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania, or GET-UP, for the University to improve its sexual harassment reporting procedures. The advocacy effort was prompted in part by the emergence of several anonymous, public allegations concerning a range of incidents of sexual harassment perpetrated by Penn faculty and included presentations at the biannual University Council Open Forum.  

Students expressed concerns over a policy that requires community members to lodge sexual harassment claims against faculty with a school dean, who then has the power to determine whether to take any action. 

Under the new regulations, all reports against faculty would go directly to the new assistant or associate vice president/Title IX officer. 

“One good outcome is that the deans and department heads won’t be the ones to receive these reports,” Jenn Phuong, GET-UP sexual harassment committee member and Graduate School of Education Ph.D. student, said. “It will be a little more fair.”

Phuong also said that the office, if implemented effectively, could better track cases of sexual misconduct on campus. 

Credit: Lucy Ferry

GAPSA Sexual Harassment Committee Deputy Blanca Castro, a second year master's student in the School of Social Policy, said she thinks the centralized position could help administrators realize how prevalent sexual harassment is on campus. 

The proposal from Mitchell and White marks one of the most significant administrative responses to the growing criticism of the sexual misconduct policies at Penn, though many graduate students say they still have lingering concerns the proposed changes. 

Liv Harding, a Ph.D. candidate in cellular and molecular biology in the Perelman School of Medicine, was present at the GAPSA meeting and said she sensed "a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the proposed changes" among those in attendance, especially since the proposed regulations pertain only to reporting misconduct rather than preventing it. 

Castro, who also questioned what the office plans to do to prevent sexual misconduct, noted that she and other members of the GAPSA sexual harassment committee are also concerned about how quickly the new office will begin to address complaints of misconduct. 

Phuong questioned how the office would be run as well as how it would "communicate with the different bodies" at Penn. At the time of publication, it did not seem that undergraduate student groups had been involved in the process to review the proposal. Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention Chair and College senior Kara Hardie said her organization had not been informed of the proposed sexual misconduct office. Neither was the Penn Association for Gender Equity, according to PAGE Chair and Engineering junior Curie Shim.

Photo from Miranda Weinberg

White wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that administrators expect to publish the policy change in the Almanac this fall and “invite further comments.” The proposed changes will only take effect, however, if top administrators provide their approval. 

Pinto-Martin, a nursing professor, also said the University is waiting for the United States Department of Education to finalize its new policies concerning campus sexual misconduct before finalizing the new rules so as to ensure that they are in compliance with federal law. 

Pinto-Martin compared the proposed centralized sexual misconduct office to the all-encompassing Student Wellness Services umbrella that was recently established to address any student health crises.

“[This year at Penn], there’re going to be a lot of positive changes around developing this culture of wellness. This sexual misconduct policy is part of it,” Pinto-Martin said. “We need to do that right if we’re going to have long-term wellness.”

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