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U Of I Committee Urges Changes To Sexual Harassment Policies, But No Timeline For Adoption

Pat Nabong, special to ProPublica
The quad of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

A new report from a University of Illinois panel on faculty misconduct seeks a broader definition of sexual harassment and more transparency. But a university spokesperson couldn’t say when the reforms would be adopted or how much they would cost.

This article was produced in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network .

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a much-anticipated report this week with recommendations to improve the handling of sexual harassment cases involving faculty.

Among the most significant: expanding the definition of sexual harassment beyond the campus’ current standard, hiring more advisers and investigators, and asking candidates for university jobs to waive confidentiality and reveal their disciplinary records.

But whether the university’s Board of Trustees will embrace change remains to be seen. Even Robin Kar, a professor of law and philosophy who headed up the committee, was uncertain how the ideas would be received.

Kar acknowledged it could be a challenge to get those at the top of the university system hierarchy to buy into some of the suggested reforms. He noted that years have passed since the board last approved changes to guidelines for staff and faculty.

“It happens very rarely,” he told NPR Illinois.

The hurdles to reducing sexual harassment at the university were on display Wednesday at a summit hosted at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Panelists noted that many people never report incidents to Title IX offices, which are responsible for investigating sexual misconduct complaints.

They also raised concerns about the efficacy of Title IX training, the need to intervene earlier to stop bullying or other problematic behavior, and the handling of gender discrimination issues other than sexual harassment.

“We need to focus less on the policies and more on the conduct,” said Kristina Larsen, an attorney and activist. Larsen said that in university settings, administrators don’t have the same amount of power as they do in the corporate world. Colleagues often have as much power as administrators to intervene, she said.

“It doesn't matter whether it's illegal or not,” she said. Instead the campus community should ask: “What’s ethical? What’s appropriate?”

A university spokesperson declined to speculate on when the reforms would be adopted or how much they would cost, but said the institution was committed to “building a safer community.”

“It’s too early to determine what final form overall implementation will take and how much that would cost,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to NPR Illinois. “However, the chancellor and provost have made clear that cost will not be an impediment to change.”

Concerted calls for change at UIUC began a year ago at a #MeToo forum at the College of Law. An audience member asked about reports of harassment by law professor Jay Kesan. The university had spent two years investigating Kesan, but it kept the findings confidential.

Local media subsequently reported that the university investigation included three complainants’ allegations against Kesan, and found that more than 30 witnesses had testified to Title IX investigators. Kesan was determined to have violated the university’s code of conduct and the “spirit” of the sexual misconduct policy.

Kesan was forced to forego merit-based pay raises for a limited time, but critics contended the punishment was not serious enough. Student groups called for his resignation. Kesan later admitted to the behavior in a letter to colleagues and apologized. He is currently on a voluntary unpaid leave and is set to return in 2020.

Continued media coverage by The News-Gazette, Illinois Public Media and others has kept the issue of faculty sexual misconduct at UIUC under public scrutiny and added to the number of known cases.

In August, an NPR Illinois and ProPublica investigation detailed allegations against seven professors in recent years. It uncovered three new cases in which professors accused of conduct including stalking, inappropriate touching and unfair treatment of international students were found in violation of university policy and were then given periods of paid leave. Two went on to new positions, and the other is still on faculty at UIUC.

One of the focal points of the summit Wednesday was the need for a new approach to addressing discrimination and harassment within academia as a whole. Panelists said universities need to go beyond the requirements of Title IX and better support victims of sexual misconduct.

Larsen told the crowded conference that victims tell her the process of reporting sexual harassment is more traumatizing than the behavior that led them to report in the first place — “100% without exception.”

Larsen said a fear of lawsuits from the accused and the influence of university lawyers can keep administrators from doing the right thing. Her advice: “Don't worry about the liability, worry about doing what's right.”

One of the recommendations from the report was for the university to hire more confidential advisers who can counsel victims without having to report details of the incidents to the Title IX office. Kar said that while putting together the report, he heard from the campus’ director of the Women’s Resources Center, Sarah Colomé, that victims had to wait too long to speak with confidential advisers.

Credit Rachel Otwell / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Sudarshana Rao is a senior member who also heads the campus organization Students Against Sexual Assault. She says students want a seat at the table as talks of the recommendations continue.

A university spokesperson said the Women’s Resources Center is seeking to hire two full-time confidential advisers. The center currently has employees serving part-time in that role.

Students also demanded more of a say in the development of new policies.

Sudarshana Rao, a senior who is a member of the student government, noted that student leaders had written a letter asking to participate in the negotiations after reading the NPR Illinois-ProPublica investigation.

“I think the next steps going forward are to keep this momentum going and the student voice is so, so important,” Rao said. “We have the most to lose if the administration or higher powers choose to abuse their power.”

Rachel Otwell is a reporter at NPR Illinois.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story    newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

NPR Illinois was part of the Illinois Newsroom collaborative, which secured the initial grant for this project.

NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Media are part of the University of Illinois System. The university has no editorial control or oversight of news content produced by either. Reporters at NPR Illinois, however, are considered “responsible employees” under the university’s policies and are required to report allegations of abuse to the university. As a result, news tips should be sent to ProPublica staff.

Our reporting won’t stop here. Have you faced sexual harassment or violence from a faculty or staff member at a university, college or community college in Illinois? We need your help — here’s how you can get in touch:

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Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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