Thursday, December 12, 2013

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Wide-Ranging Study Brings About Sexual Harassment Policy Changes

In an effort to ensure that reporting and compliance of sexual harassment policies across The University of Texas System are more efficient and robust, the UT System Board of Regents has adopted more than two dozen wide-ranging policy and culture changes.

Fourteen changes in policy and 12 culture changes were recommended in the report by the Employee/Student Relationship Task Force. The 15-member task force was comprised of student and faculty representatives, administrators, athletics representatives, campus presidents and outside legal experts, and headed by Regents’ Chairman Paul L. Foster.

“I am confident that we have identified the best practices to address sexual misconduct on campus by creating a policy for all our campuses that does not merely discourage inappropriate relationships, and clearly prohibits certain relationships where a real, or perceived, abuse of power exists,” Foster told the Board of Regents at a meeting Thursday. “At the same time, we are laying out recommendations for the best path to a culture that fosters a safe environment and that does not tolerate inappropriate relationships.”

A 2011 federal mandate announced new requirements for colleges and universities related to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence and also precipitated much dialogue and change to institutional policies. At that time, the UT System implemented new reporting mechanisms to cover instances of sexual misconduct.

Created in March 2013, the Task Force was charged with examining policies and processes related to employee/student relationships across the UT System and with making recommendations for needed changes. 

“Our collective goal is to provide a safe and respectful environment for our faculty to teach and create new knowledge and our students to learn,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa. “We not only want our universities to be centers of excellence, we want to be able to provide a great work atmosphere for education, research and healthcare to take place. The observations in this report are consistent with these important goals and provide a pathway for continual improvement.”

In its far-ranging charge, the task force was directed to study “all existing programs directed at preventing such inappropriate relationships and include the issues of preventing and addressing sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and other inappropriate relationships to ensure a safe, healthy environment for students. This committee should address current campus practices and attitudes surrounding these topics and identify ways to create a culture of no tolerance for inappropriate relationships with students or staff. It should review policies and practices across the 15 institutions of the UT System, including how allegations of sexual misconduct between employees and students - specifically between faculty and students and between athletic professionals (including coaches) and student-athletes, student volunteers or student employees - have been handled over the past five years.”

The Task Force recommendations, adopted by a unanimous vote, noted that: “What may begin as a seemingly consensual relationship can quickly transform into a sexual harassment complaint from the student.  Consider (that) a 2001 survey of undergraduate students found that 40 percent of women and 28 percent of men had perceived that they had been sexually harassed by a college professor or instructor.”

The report noted that the recommendations “set forth in this report are designed to create a safer environment for students and employees across UT System,” and urged that reviews should be done on an annual basis to ensure the changes in both policy and culture are fully implemented.

Policy Changes Include:

  1. A careful review of sexual harassment and assault policies should be conducted to ensure full institutional compliance.
  2. The central elements of the consensual relationships policy at each UT institution, including the definition of what is prohibited should be the same for all institutions.
  3. A consensual relationships policy should not merely discourage inappropriate relationships, it should prohibit them, unless they are disclosed and the conflict can be mitigated.
  4. The consensual relationships policy should permit institutions to develop and adopt more stringent policies for units and programs where mitigation is not possible.
  5. The consensual relationships policy should require mitigation plans to be documented.
  6. The consensual relationships policy should address the impact of “indirect     authority” on these imbalanced relationships.
  7. The concept of “consensual sexual relationships” in the consensual relationships policy should be expanded to include “romance and dating.
  8. The UT System Office of General Counsel should provide guidance and monitor the handling of and any sanctions imposed for violations of consensual relations policies or sexual harassment policies to ensure reasonable consistency across System institutions.
  9. Athletics Departments should be required to adopt more stringent consensual relationships policies.
  10. The consensual relationships policy should place the burden on the supervisor or faculty member if he or she was having an inappropriate relationship with a supervisee or student and the supervisee or student alleges sexual harassment.
  11. A procedure should be developed for allowing the suspension of individuals during investigations of alleged violations of the consensual relationships or sexual harassment policy.
  12. Guidelines should be provided to ensure robust reference checking and hiring practices.
  13. Student discipline policies and procedures should make it clear that all allegations of misconduct by student athletes are to be reported through the appropriate channels within each institution, as well as to the athletic department.
  14.  Ensure the availability of counseling services for individuals concerned about inappropriate consensual relationships or sexual harassment.

Culture Changes Include:

  1. Change the status quo and start with leadership.
  2. Identify campus champion(s) and seek support of campus opinion leaders.
  3. Engage the Faculty Advisory Council.
  4. Develop a workshop or presentation for faculty members that:
  5. Change student culture by reinforcing student responsibility and by helping students understand collateral damage.
  6. Raise awareness with students through presentations and workshops.
  7. Engage student leadership and upperclassmen.
  8. Develop a clear message and reinforce it.
  9. Engage the Student Advisory Council.
  10. Engage all staff members at the institutions.
  11. Engage each campus’s Staff Council and Student Governments.
  12. Recognize the unique sets of challenges in campus athletic departments, and adjust policy and culture initiatives accordingly.
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