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The policy proposed to centralize sexual misconduct claims under a single office has received feedback from graduate student groups that it needs to improve its transparency and specificity before publication.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

When Penn proposed creating a centralized sexual misconduct reporting office in September 2018, many graduate students — who advocated for the office — welcomed it as a step in the right direction.

But now graduate students say the University policy is not specific enough, and they are calling on Penn to allow students to be more involved with its official implementation. On Jan. 22, Penn officially proposed a policy to centralize all sexual misconduct investigations in a single office. The policy also proposed creating a new administrative position, the Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer, who will lead the office.

Following the release of the draft document, the University allotted a month for students, faculty, and staff to submit comments to Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs Joann Mitchell.

The previous policy stated that sexual harassment complaints against faculty members must be sent to the dean of the school, who is charged with taking action and investigating the cases if they are not resolved informally. All sexual violence reports were investigated by the Office of the Sexual Violence Investigative Officer, which is led by a single investigator. Under this new policy, all reports of sexual misconduct, including sexual violence and harassment, will be investigated by one office led by the AVP and Title IX Officer.

The policy followed strong student criticism of reporting procedures during a January 2018 University Council Open Forum. Graduate student leaders previously launched a year-long campaign criticizing the reporting procedures.

While the new policy shifts the responsibility of complaints away from the school deans so they can be handled more efficiently under a single office, the informal complaint procedures require that the new AVP for Equity and Title IX Officer must still consult with the deans, which graduate students said causes some of the same conflicts of interest as the previous policy.

Credit: Claire Shin

Both GAPSA and GET-UP have called for equal attention in the proposed policy to sexual harassment, which is defined differently from sexual violence.

In a statement sent to Mitchell, the Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania Sexual Harassment Committee called for the policy to further specify procedures related to sexual harassment and the school deans’ new roles in the process. 

Graduate and Professional Student Assembly’s Sexual Harassment Reform Committee also wrote a statement to Mitchell commenting on the policy, agreeing with the GET-UP committee's statement, adding that the vague role of deans in the new policies does not indicate how the draft regulations differ from the existing ones. 

“One of the top items we hope will be addressed is what the role of the Dean will be in the resolution of sexual harassment complaints,” said GAPSA Sexual Harassment Reform Committee member Sydney Campbell, who is also a Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology. “[The current policy] is vague and does not clearly indicate a change from current policy.”

“The real change that this new [policy] has is that it adds the [Associate Vice President] as the person in the middle,” GET-UP member and Ph.D candidate in the Educational Linguistics Department Jennifer Phuong said, adding that there are not "any protections" for students.

The GAPSA commitee's statement also called for the presence of graduate students in the new AVP hiring process. Both graduate student groups also suggest the policy to permit complainants to have an advocate, who would represent the interests of the complaintant during the proces.

“The person hired for this position will be a major factor in whether or not these new policies are effective and improve upon the current system,” Campbell said. 

Credit: Maria Murad

The GAPSA committee's statement called for an evaluation of the Dean's role in the resolution of sexual harassment complaints, and the presence of graduate students in the new AVP hiring process.

GET-UP's committee also asked Mitchell to change all instances of "he or she" in the draft policy to "they" to be inclusive of those who do not use non-binary pronouns. The statement also included that the policy should provide support for complainants even in cases in which no violations were found. 

GAPSA’s commitee requested more information about who will conduct prevention educational programming, while GET-UP's committee makes the same requests for monitoring data and training. The GET-UP committee's statement also requests additional avenues for appeal and for the policy to include measures for cases of misconduct that take place between University members outside of campus.

Comments from a group of undergraduate leaders, the Human Resources Advisory Council, the Faculty Senate, and Council of Deans are also currently being reviewed, University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The revised policy and comments will be presented to deans, Faculty Senate Tri-chairs, and the Academic Policy and Budget committees before expected official publication in the University Almanac at the end of the semester, Mitchell wrote in an email to the DP.  

She added the current Sexual Violence Investigative Officers will be among those investigating the new sexual misconduct allegations, and that the physical space for the office will be decided later this spring.

Staff Reporter Olivia Cheng contributed reporting. 

All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.