31

This issue is about a university in a 3rd world country.

I friend of mine (I will call her "Z") is a faculty member at a reputable university. During one of her sittings with an undergrad student ("A"), she learned that another faculty member ("T") is sending "A" some inappropriate text msgs and emails. "A" also mentions that she has heard similar stuff from another student "B" about "T". "A" offers to show some texts to "Z" to which "Z" refuses. But "Z" does tell "A" that office of student affairs handles such matters to which "A" says that she is aware of that office but does not want to report. "A" just wants to graduate ASAP and thinks that "T" might damage her as he is quite powerful within school administration. Therefore no action.

I am convinced that, given "A" is not the only student who is being harassed, "T" will misuse his position and will continue his inappropriate behavior. And I am also convinced that office of student affairs will take action if notified. I guess that my friend "Z" does not want to be a whistle blower although she thinks that "A" is being truthful.

I think that keeping quiet will only make things bad for other vulnerable students. Please mind that for a female going to university in that country is a privilege. And "T" is not on the university's radar. So I am thinking of dropping an anonymous email to office of student affairs. Is it ok to do such a thing? I mean I have not even an iota of business with that university, "A", or "T".

So my question is:

Is it ok for a person, who has nothing to do with any of characters in the story, to drop an email asking administration to take a look into these allegations?

Note: I understand that accusing anyone wrongly has serious consequences, both professionally and personally. But at the same time if these allegations are true and are left unnoticed, students and the university will be at the receiving end.

  • 1
    A compelling question, a difficult question, and very dependent on many specifics of the situation... Also, anonymous allegations have problems with credibility, and perhaps even legal issues (e.g., in the U.S., accused people are generally allowed to know their accusers...) A bad situation, but/and also tricky. – paul garrett Feb 26 '18 at 0:05
  • In some places, such as where I am, there are local dignity at work representatives, part of whose role is to support those who don't want to make a complaint. Do you have anyone similar? If the student in question doesn't want to talk to them, you (or Z) still can, without the need to name names at least at first – Chris H Feb 26 '18 at 9:03
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    Not only is it okay, in the US it is manditory requirement for a faculty members to report issues of sexual harrassment (part of something called Title IX) they hear about from students. – Kimball Feb 26 '18 at 13:35
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    @Kimball: Under the law, US institutions are required only to make a clearly-defined policy about who is a "mandatory reporter" under Title IX. But many US institutions, including mine, include almost everyone in that category (with some exceptions such as chaplains & health professionals), so the effect is much the same. – Michael Seifert Feb 26 '18 at 13:56
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    I would suggest instead of using letters, to use whole made-up names, which are much easier to read and follow. – Azor Ahai Feb 26 '18 at 18:33
30

As Allure points out, opinions on this matter will vary, so let me note some points that I think are important here, and also offer an opinion that is slightly to the contrary of some other answers. (For brevity, these points are framed as an answer to the person you are talking about who is the academic dealing with these students.)

  • Academics have a duty of care to students: Students at university are adults, but they mostly are still young and inexperienced. In my humble opinion, academics should generally err on the side of pushing for assistance in cases like these, even if the students are reluctant. Students are generally young adults who may be intimidated by the positions and standing of older adults who have attained academic success and institutional power. Having another academic push the matter forward may be helpful in overcoming this disparity.

  • Harassers thrive on the "I won't make a fuss" mentality: Without making any assumption about whether or not harassment has actually occurred in this case, it is worth noting that cases of harassment tend to be done over and over again by a small number of individuals, and tend to proliferate because each person who is being harassed thinks it is only them, and they don't want to make a fuss and risk retribution by a powerful person. In cases where a victim of harassment reports the conduct, it is not unusual for this to precipitate an avalanche of other allegations against the same harasser. Recent events in Hollywood (e.g., Harvey Weinstein) testify to this fact, as do many other cases of sexual harassment.

  • Merely referring an allegation is not "accusatory": Reporting an allegation for it to be investigated need not presume the truth of the allegation, and need not be "accusatory". That is the point of an investigation - to get to the truth from a starting point of it being unknown. It is perfectly legitimate to report allegations you have heard on to the administration, while taking no position on whether they are true or false, but still asking the university to consider whatever investigation into the matter is warranted by the allegations. There is no contradiction between wanting to bring this matter to the attention of the administration, and also wanting to avoid a false accusation. Just make sure that if you do send an email to the administration, you write it in a neutral way that does not presume that misconduct has occurred.

  • In the end, evidence will be required: While it is legitimate to report hearsay allegations for the purpose of bringing a matter to the attention of the administration, you should bear in mind that your hearsay is not evidence. Unless one of the affected students is willing to speak to the university administration about this, the university will probably be very limited in its ability to investigate the matter. That is perfectly legitimate - after all, people should not be subject to negative proceeding against them without evidence, and hearsay evidence is weak evidence.

  • With this in mind, the contribution you can make here is to bring the allegation to the attention of the administration, leading to contact with the students, and giving them an opportunity to report this matter formally. By acting as the initial referrer of the allegation, you can also show your students that actions are louder than words - you are willing to get involves, so maybe that will make them more willing. Still, at the end of the day it will depend on them. In my view even this step might be a good idea, even if the students ultimately decide not to proceed. I don't agree with the recommendation to do nothing.

  • Have the courage to put your name to the referral: Think carefully about whether it is appropriate to report this anonymously. If it is justifiable to refer the matter to the university administration, and if you frame your email in a fair way that does not presume misconduct, then you ought to have the courage to put your name to it, and stand by your own actions. Reports of harassment are generally treated in confidence (at least up to the point where the accused is able to face the accusations), and this is an opportunity to set an example for your students and show that you are willing to act on your own principles. If a grown-up academic can't show the backbone to make a report about a colleague, without hiding behind anonymity, why should younger students show the courage that is absent in their elders?

Anyway, that is my two-cents. I'm sure there will be plenty of others with contrary opinions. Hopefully others will also give their views, as it would be worth getting some contrary ideas on this matter before making your decision.

  • 1
    Very well written answer. I agree with everything that you wrote. But I would like to point out that you missed one point. I am not connected to those students and university. My friend teaches there and she is not interested in getting involved. I am an unrelated person in the whole story but I think that is not an excuse for me to do nothing. – NAASI Feb 26 '18 at 4:44
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    But still everything you said is applicable. All your points make sense. – NAASI Feb 26 '18 at 4:46
  • Fair enough. For brevity, I framed the answer more as an answer to the person who is actually involved, mainly to make it easier to read. If you are another step removed from that, then the answer is really written to the person you're talking about. If I had to frame the answer as an answer to a person who knows a person who knows a person, it would have involved a lot of annoying circumlocutions! – Reinstate Monica Feb 26 '18 at 5:02
  • I have edited to add a parenthetic remark prior to my dot points, to make that clear in the post. – Reinstate Monica Feb 26 '18 at 5:05
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    I think you’re strictly wrong when you say that a report of an allegation isn’t an accusation: it pretty much by definition is (and “I’m just reporting what I heard” is an ineffective excuse: the effect is the same). Still, that’s a minor language issue and I agree with your recommendations. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 26 '18 at 11:40
10

This is going to vary massively based on opinion. Still, my reaction is to do nothing. A or B have to stand up for themselves, otherwise for others it's a case of wanting to help but not being able to do so. Imagine what happens if an uninvolved third party writes to the administration asking them to act:

  1. The administration has to take the allegations seriously. To convince them of that, you need to provide evidence. It seems like you don't have any solid evidence, only 2nd-hand information.
  2. Assuming the administration takes the allegations seriously, they're likely to want to interview A and B. If A and B refuse to cooperate, the administration can't proceed.
  3. For the administration to proceed, they need to make A and B cooperate even though they've stated (at least in A's case she has) that they don't want to. Are you sure that you want to put them through this?

Another thing to mention is that you could be accused of betrayal of trust. Z can plausibly argue that she told you this expecting that you will keep it confidential (it is likely A told Z expecting Z to keep it confidential, too). If you report to the administration and they press you about this, what can you say?

I would talk to A & B, argue that they should raise the issue to the administration both for themselves and for others, but also defer to their decision.

  • In addition to encouraging them, the OP may want to offer to accompany them and participate with the process as a means of supporting them. In the same vein as Ben's last point, this indicates that the OP is willing to put their reputation on the line to help. – jpmc26 Feb 27 '18 at 3:25
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    I entirely disagree with this. Even if the administration cannot find evidence to actually do anything about it this time, then the issue has still been recorded. If this keeps happening, at the very least it must become clear to people that it is not an isolated incident. If nobody ever reports things, the accused can make any single report look like it's someone with an ax to grind, and dismiss it as a case of he-said-she-said. That's so much harder if there have already been a dozen reports, even if none of the accusers is willing to talk. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 27 '18 at 3:59
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    I think if a person suspects (even without proof) that a crime is being committed, they are ethically responsible to pass whatever information they have to whoever could investigate the matter further. Sexual harassment (if that's what the "inappropriate messages" are) is a crime, and should not be the victim's responsibility to deal with. Additionally, perhaps A is reluctant to speak up, but would do it if approached by authorities directly. – Pandora Feb 27 '18 at 14:05
  • @WolfgangBangerth even if there are a dozen reports, if none of the accusers are willing to talk, what can the administration possibly do? Any action at all would be presuming the accused is guilty. – Allure Feb 27 '18 at 19:11
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    @Allure: A lesson of the #metoo movement is that it is exceedingly difficult for many people to report abuse. But that it is liberating to know that many others have felt the same abuse. So an administrator may not succeed in convincing a single victim to come forward and testify, but the administrator may be successful if they can say "You are not alone. You will testify alongside 15 other women who have experienced the same as you have. Your voice will be heard because there are many voices." – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 28 '18 at 2:54
7

I don't think you can do anything, ethically. At least not in the way you are considering.

You write that "accusing anyone wrongly has serious consequences", and "students and the university will be at the receiving end", but have you considered the consequences for the student "A" and for your friend "Z"?

The student "A" has said that she does not want the stress and possible problems that reporting the faculty member "T" would cause. Maybe she should report him, for the sake of other students, but she has decided that she doesn't want to, or perhaps can't. Do you want to force her to this, possibly even ruining her education? Who knows how she will react? It should be her choice, not yours, so you shouldn't name her.

Your friend "Z" didn't want to see the evidence, and doesn't want to get involved. "Z" has made a similar decision as "A", for unknown reasons. Again, her choice, not yours.

It seems to me that what your anonymous letter should then say is something like this:

Hi, I am an unidentified person, who heard from an unidentified faculty member at your university that an unidentified student at the university claims that faculty member "T" is sending harassing text messages.

I don't think that will be very helpful.

You can, however, encourage your friend to take a more active interest, and try to get the student to report the harasser, perhaps waiting until after she has graduated.

  • Waiting until she has graduated sounds reasonable, until you realize that T is probably doing this to every batch of students, so there will always be a 'current victim' that might be affected by any attempt to investigate T. I do agree it's difficult to maintain total anonymity and provide any useful information, so the asker is going to have to find some compromise. – user21820 Feb 26 '18 at 9:29
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    @user21820 that assumes that the story is true. The OP has no first-hand knowledge ("I saw T do these things") of any wrongdoing, nor even second-hand ("A told me that T did these things"). This is third-hand ("Z said A said that T did"), which is also known as "hearsay" and "gossip". ["Thank you, Simone" scene from Ferrus Bueller's Day Off: youtube.com/watch?v=swBtLPWeKbU ] – Monty Harder Feb 26 '18 at 21:28
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    @MontyHarder: Almost everything we do is based on second-hand knowledge. But it's statistically true that sexual offenses are very commonly carried out by predators. For you to dismiss the asker's question as hearsay and gossip suggests that you are or wish to be ignorant of the incredible prevalence of abuse of power everywhere, because no sane person would want to report such things without a vested interest (as the asker does) unless he/she believes it is true to some extent. If a friend of mine has never once lied to me, I would be inclined to believe other things she says. Same here. – user21820 Feb 27 '18 at 9:20
  • @ user21820...since "A" claims that multiple students are in similar situation, waiting for A to graduate wont make much difference. There will always be someone who would be a current student. – NAASI Feb 27 '18 at 12:49
  • @user21820 I'm calling it hearsay and gossip because that's what it is. With each retelling, some bit of the truth can be lost, and some embellishments creep in. Statistics are not sufficient to convict someone of a crime. We require actual evidence for that, and sane legal systems recognize the weakness of hearsay/gossip. It may be more likely that T is guilty than that he is innocent of the specific offenses alleged, but the fact that neither A nor Z is willing to testify under penalty of perjury to that effect means that the OP should be very careful about spreading such stories. – Monty Harder Feb 27 '18 at 16:00
2

Is it ok for a person, who has nothing to do with any of characters in the story, to drop an email asking administration to take a look into these allegations?

Since the country isn't listed, there is no way to provide any definitive legal or even cultural answer to this question.

However, aside from any legal or cultural specifics, this is a matter of conscience for "Z" to deal with personally. "Z" should consider whether they can live with their decision after considering the possible ramifications of their decision.

  • If "Z" does nothing, is "Z" prepared to accept that there may be future students that will be subject to such harassment that could have been prevented?
  • If "Z" does nothing, is "Z" prepared to accept that such harassment (either now or in the future) may escalate beyond inappropriate texts/emails that could have been prevented?
  • Is "Z" prepared for the possibility that this becomes a public scandal in the future and that "A" may make public statements that they confided in "Z" and that "Z" did nothing?

If "Z" cannot comfortably answer yes to these questions, they really should report the allegations to the office of student affairs.

protected by Alexandros Feb 28 '18 at 19:38

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