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Guest columnist Natalia Reyes alleges retaliation after alleged harassment from another student.  

Credit: Lizzy Machielse

On March 13, I met with Sharon Smith, associate vice provost for University Life, and Paige Wigginton, director of Special Services at Penn’s Division of Public Safety. This was the latest in a series of meetings stretching back to December 2023, when, having exhausted all paths to resolve a grievance against a student harassing me and my family, I was relegated to Smith’s office. In December, she had promised to help me feel more comfortable on campus in lieu of a proper investigation. On March 13, however, she admonished me for continuing to report ongoing discrimination, harassment, slander, and exclusion from the Department of English. She also offered a solution: a medical leave, sweetened with continued pay. I agreed, because despite putting my trust in Smith and Wigginton, duly reporting ongoing harassment as they had instructed, and attempting to protect myself by declining to work with the people who had slandered me, I was still being labeled as the problem. No on-campus institution — the Title IX office, the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, or the Division of Public Safety — had taken my reports of stalking, discrimination, and retaliation seriously. The retaliation worsened each time I reported a harm. 

I needed relief. And I trusted that the University had my best interests at heart. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I realized how wrong when Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Beth Wenger approved my “request for a leave of absence for medical reasons effective immediately” on March 20. I made several requests to delay the leave, namely so I could receive clarification about what would happen to a class I was scheduled to teach, the status of a Sachs Program for Arts Innovation Curricular Support Grant, the status of an external fellowship, and whether I could continue to attend my summer writing group. Nevertheless, I was given no opportunity to negotiate the leave terms. 

Associate Dean Wenger’s letter also neglected to mention that no medical documentation had been submitted to accompany the leave request, though they are required to complete such approvals. The letter did not mention that my physician of four years had refused to issue said documentation. According to him, I was in perfect health. When I wrote to Associate Dean Wenger noting that I thought it best to delay the leave to allow for the clarification I’d requested, she wrote back: “As part of the exceptional nature of this arrangement, we allowed the leave to begin right away with the understanding that the approval documentation would arrive imminently, and I trust that will be the case.” 

Now, I’m no stranger to being called “exceptional.” I was the first person in my family to not only attend but finish university, not to mention pursue graduate studies. Not all exceptions, however, have been good. As noted, despite my having experienced stalking and harassment that should fall under the University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, Penn’s Title IX officer made an exception, claiming that what I experienced wasn’t stalking because it had happened off campus. Nevermind that the United States Department of Education published final regulations for Title IX in April of this year specifying that Title IX requires universities to address hostile environment allegations even when the conduct occurred outside the recipient’s educational program. It was only after much persistence that the school deigned to institute the no-contact directive I requested, though they wrote it as if I were the perpetrator, not the victim.

All that said, I take exception to Associate Dean Wenger’s justification of my leave as a consequence of the “exceptional nature” of my situation. It is not that I am the exception that proves the rule. Rather, at Penn, exceptions to policy, meant to be rare, are happening all the time.

Look no further than the barricades that currently impede free movement on campus for all. Or the fact that, when it came to punishing protesters, the University happily expedited their cases through the Center for Community Standards and Accountability, an office that chose not to investigate students whom I described as discriminating against me within the English Department. Look no further than the actions of Zita Nunes, the graduate chair of Penn’s English Department. Nunes bravely penned an opinion column with her colleague Ann Farnsworth-Alvear defending students’ right to protest. In the piece, she championed due process, negotiation, and open expression, all things she neglected to grant me in her capacity as English Department administrative officer. Instead, she insisted that there was no process for addressing the harassment, refused to negotiate the terms of my leave, and is now refusing to authorize my return from leave entirely. Without due process, Nunes has told professors in the department that I am to be excluded from any University-funded activities, even if the event is off-campus and open to the public. She also attempted to cancel the events I planned in my capacity as Latinx Working Group co-coordinator before the University community championed them, forcing her to recant. 

I could go on about all the harms of the Department of English and their bizarre exceptions to policy. Worse still, now Associate Dean Wenger has become instrumental in perpetuating harm. She was happy to authorize a medical leave without the proper documentation, but has not responded to all the documentation I submitted in early May to authorize my return, not even to confirm receipt. 

For once, I would like not to be exceptional. I would like Associate Dean Wenger to see that I have submitted the proper documentation to return from leave and approve my return. I would like the Graduate Division of the School of Arts and Sciences to undertake a process to accommodate me in a department other than English. Perhaps they could do this by supporting my attempts to file a complaint with the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, have it properly investigated, and come to the conclusion that, indeed, retaliation is happening in the Department of English. In the meantime, they could offer me basic redress, including a department switch to allow me to finish my Ph.D. without fear. I want the rules. I want someone to follow them, for once. Is that really so much to ask? 

NATALIA REYES is a Ph.D. candidate in English from Indio, Calif. She is a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. Her email is