Saturday, October 01, 2016

Why Don't More Faculty Speak Out About Sexual Assault?

This is a (slightly modified for public consumption—links added, some personal bits and references to other conference speakers’ remarks removed) draft of remarks that I’ve prepared for a panel entitled “The Impact of Speaking Out: Graduate Students and the Role of Faculty”, as part of a conference at UBC on conversations around sexual violence.

Thanks very much to the organisers for putting this important conference together. My name is Jonathan Ichikawa. I’m a professor in the philosophy department here at UBC. I’m grateful to the organizers for inviting me to be a part of this event. But to be honest, when I received the invitation, I felt pretty conflicted about whether to accept it. Certainly I think that events like these are important, and that the more we can do to raise awareness and solidarity around the challenges of sexual violence, the better. The reason I wasn’t sure whether to participate was that I wasn’t sure if I really belonged in a spot like this. Unlike the other speakers here, I don’t have any particular familiarity or expertise in campus sexual assault. None of my publications are about this topic. I’ve never had a job, or even a volunteer position, working closely with sexual assault survivors. I don’t have a personal narrative that’s particularly interesting in these respects. Am I really someone who should be taking up this space?

I assume the reason I was invited is that I have been one of the UBC faculty members who made a point of speaking out about some of UBC’s recent high-profile failures. In January, I was one of the organisers of an open letter, where about a hundred UBC faculty members acknowledged that UBC’s procedures for student reports of sexual assault were inadequate and harmful. As members of the UBC community, we apologised for our institutional failures, and pledged to work for improvement. There was a bit of media attention attached to that letter, and, for no deep reason—among the handful approached, I was the one free and willing—I spoke to a few journalists about it, and sort of accidentally became one of the faces of faculty interest in these questions.

But I haven’t done much. I saw some things that were clearly unacceptable—I saw students saying that their experiences reporting sexual assaults to UBC were more traumatic than the assaults themselves—and I said so. It’s barely anything. But the sad truth is, it’s a lot more than many of my colleagues have done. This week I asked a friend—a graduate student involved in discussions of sexual violence at another institution—what faculty could do to be more supportive of their activism. My friend’s answer: practically anything. As they rather pithily put it: I speak out a couple of times and suddenly I’m qualified to be on a panel.

So one of the questions I’m puzzling over is: why don’t more faculty members speak out? Let’s set aside the minority who knowingly sign on to deeply misognyistic tropes—those who think complaints about sexual assault are usually made-up lies intended to slander men. One might call that the basket of deplorables. They exist, but they’re not my focus now. Why do other faculty members remain silent? I have three ideas. I’ll frame my remarks around them.

One simple factor that works against faculty activism is fear. Fear of offending colleagues; fear of saying the wrong thing; fear of being labelled a ‘troublemaker’. One factor is the very tangible fear of being denied tenure, or not having one’s contract renewed. A large and increasing proportion of the faculty at many institutions, including this one, works on an adjunct basis, with minimal job security. Even those on the tenure track often have much less security than one might think. I had a chance to speak this week with a remarkable woman at a university in the United States, who suffered severe retribution from her administrators and colleagues when she worked with students to organize a Title IX complaint. For example, her annual review admitted that her research, teaching, and service contributions were strong, but said her overall performance was inadequate, citing a class in which she submitted the grades 24 hours late, and some reimbursement receipts that were mishandled by the office staff. She’s tenure-track, but she doesn’t expect to retain her job.

This is an extreme case—a nightmare scenario—but it illustrates the sorts of pressures many faculty members face. I have not faced repercussions of this kind at UBC. But it is certainly true that faculty members here worry about these things. When I began speaking out, I was cautioned by well-intentioned colleagues that I was putting my professional advancement at risk. I don’t know whether this was true. And I’m tenured, so I have less vulnerability. But I know that fear of this sort of retribution is a significant silencing factor among at UBC and elsewhere. This sort of culture of fear extends beyond issues surrounding sexual violence; it is a challenge for all kinds of advocates for university reform.

You may have seen in the news this week that three students at UC-Berkeley, who went public with allegations that they’d been sexually harassed by one of their professors, are now undergoing lawsuit defamation lawsuits from him. This is not the norm, but it is a real thing, and it contributes to fear. (Side note: and people say that feminist students are the big threat to free speech these days!)

This kind of fear is particularly fertile in solitary environments. It’s easier and safer to speak up when you’re doing it with your colleagues. When fear leads to silence, that silence amounts to isolation of those who might want to speak up, leading to more fear. This is why it’s especially important for those of us who are professionally and socially more secure to speak publicly. This applies both for professional status—especially tenure—but also for every other kind of social privilege. I know what happens to women who talk publicly about sexual assault on the internet.

This interacts in a tricky way with the second reason I think a lot of my colleagues don’t speak up: feeling under-qualified. I did a twitter poll of faculty members about why they don’t speak up, and this was the plurality response. Fun fact: socially privileged people tend to be less familiar with sexual assault. The same features that tend to make you less likely to be a recipient of sexual violence also tend to make you more professionally secure. So the people in the safest position to speak are rarely the experts on sexual assault. And often they know it. (Ideally they know it!) Consequently, there is an inclination to defer to others. Let the experts on feminism and gender studies take the lead on these issues.

I think this is right, as far as it goes. But it can be taken too far; when it does, it contributes to a culture of silence. There’s space between silence and dominating the discussion. Well-intentioned non-experts can easily err on the side of silence—this is especially true because self-serving biases about convenience and easiness also pull in that direction. But you don’t have to be an expert to be qualified to respond to what you see. You just have to be a human being who cares about justice and suffering. Any faculty member who cares about their ability to teach their students has an interest in their security, safety, and mental and physical health. Students can’t learn when they’re not safe.

There’s a lot of expertise to be had on sexual assault, as the other speakers in this conference prove. People like me who don’t know a lot about it are right to think that other people know better than we do. But we’d be wrong to think we therefore shouldn’t speak up. Whether we intend it or not, failure to speak up so sends a signal: we don’t care. That message is oppressive. It tells activists they’re on their own. We faculty members don’t always remember it, but we make up a significant part of the culture of the university. What we’re like makes for quite a lot of what the university is like.

This brings me to the third reason I think some faculty don’t speak up: they feel like it doesn’t matter. It won’t make a difference. This one I can honestly relate to. It’s easy to feel like, of COURSE I am opposed to sexual violence, and of COURSE I think it’s important that people shouldn’t be re-victimized in the process of reporting their experiences. I could stand up and say so, but what would be the point?

I feel this frustration. I often feel like the many hours I’ve spent speaking out haven’t had a very dramatic effect. I was frustrated when UBC released its draft sexual assault policy, which, so far as I can tell, doesn’t address any of the challenges or shortcomings we’d identified. When I talk to UBC administrators, they say all the right things, but somehow it doesn’t seem to translate into action. I haven’t yet figured out a reliable strategy for converting good intentions into good actions and policies. And that is frustrating.

But again, I think we should be careful not to overlook that first step: the speaking out. It’s an important shortcoming if it doesn’t translate in to university policy, but it’s still not nothing. It’s a signal to our community members: we see what’s happening. We hear you. We believe you. We care. We’re sorry. We’re trying. With a big institution like a university, an individual faculty member can feel irrelevant because we don’t have the ability to set the direction of the whole ship. But a university isn’t just a vessel being directed by people; it is a society made up of people. What I say doesn’t only matter insofar as it sets university policy; it is a small but significant constitutive part of what gives the university the culture it has. And I think that’s worthwhile. So I think more professors should speak out.

OK I didn’t prepare a tidy wrapping up, so I’ll just stop now. Thanks.


  1. Nice! How did the conference go?

    1. It was a very strong conference. Super intense at times, but illuminating and valuable