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Credit: Ananya Chandra

This year, Penn's Office of the Ombuds’ annual report found a significant increase in the number of people who came to the office to discuss instances of sexual harassment and violence. In the past several years, the ombuds' report has consistently reported that no student or faculty member reported instances of sexual harassment or violence. This year, the number jumped to five complaints.

According to the report, the increase was likely a result of a July 2016 change in University policy that made the Office of the Ombuds a confidential resource for instances of sexual violence. Lynn Hollen Lees, the University ombuds and a history professor, said more people who experienced sexual violence likely came to the office because of the policy change.

The ombuds' report consists of data related to various types of conflict on campus reported by students and faculty. The office aims to mediate conflict and “settle problems informally” through confidential conversations.

“Individuals with such concerns were not likely to contact us. If they did raise those issues, we had to advise them of our duty to share information if a legal demand was made for us to disclose it,” Lees wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

Lees noted that some other members of the Ivy League label their ombuds offices as "confidential spaces" to talk about occurrences of sexual harassment and assault.  

"We think that the increased use of our office in discussion of such matters stems from the new policy of confidentiality for the ombuds office and also from the MeToo movement which has resulted in increased willingness to come forward with complaints and with concerns about how those complaints have been handled," Lees wrote. 

The last time the ombuds reported that a student or faculty member came to talk about sexual harassment was in the 2011 to 2012 academic year report.

Last year’s report suggested that there was an increase in instances of interpersonal conflict. This year, discrimination increased from one to five reported incidents while 34 instances of abusive behavior were reported to the office — the second most reported complaint after general employment issues.

“For the past several years, the most common complaint brought to us arises from resentments over what is seen as bullying and unfair treatment,” the report said. “Visitors describe intimidation, abusive language and disrespectful behavior, as well as the unwillingness of others to engage in dialogue about an issue. Visitors report their perceptions of biases and micro-aggressions.”

In total, 163 individuals across campus consulted the office, which was a 5.8 percent increase compared to last year’s report. Penn staff were the most frequent visitors, while faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students followed. In this year’s report, there was also an increase in the number of faculty who came to the office.

Lees said the majority of their visitors are faculty and staff likely because students have more “alternative resources” and faculty have “fewer people to fall back on.”

Lees and Associate Ombuds Marcia Martínez-Helfman also said they added a new section in this year’s report that details the office’s work and how faculty and students can seek help. 

The office fields complaints about matters relating to academic research, financial matters, and employment procedures as well. 

In August, the University also launched a new online bias reporting form which allows students to report incidents, such as sexual misconduct and discriminatory harassment, anonymously.

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