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Sexual violence on campus: Just the tip of the iceberg

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Stanford, time is up. It’s far past time to reckon with the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment at every level of our institutional hierarchy.

We are graduate students appalled by the prevalence of sexual violence on our campus. Watching the recent reports of druggings across campus roll into our emails is alarming each time. We have seen not only an uptick in the number of reported druggings of students (nine, recently) but disturbing results in the recent AAU campus survey regarding sexual violence. Over the past four years, nearly 40% of undergraduate women have experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, the inability to consent or coercion without voluntary agreement. The rates of nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent for TGQN (transgender, genderqueer or nonbinary) students were either the same or slightly lower when compared to undergraduate women. Even more disconcerting is the knowledge of what is not publicly known. 

We believe these instances of violence are symptoms of a much larger epidemic of sexual and gender-based harassment at Stanford. According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), gender-based harassment is the most prevalent form of sexual harassment. What gets reported is only the tip of the iceberg of a culture of harassment — including microaggressions, coercion, incivility, exclusion, objectification, stalking, aggression and retaliation. Based on the NASEM report on sexual harassment, the Provost reports and the AAU survey, we have firm reason to believe that this culture of harassment pervades our university at every level, with undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, postdocs and faculty alike all experiencing harassment. 

Stanford is not a passive victim of this behavior; it is a complicit enabler of it. This perceived tolerance is embodied by the results of the AAU survey where only 19% of TGQN students and only 29% of undergraduate women feel that campus officials are very or extremely likely to conduct a fair investigation. The administration needs to create policies that protect survivors and targets, now.

We are repulsed by the tolerance for harassment and sexual violence on our campus, the lack of action to mitigate this culture and the repeated instances of the university protecting perpetrators. As graduate students, Stanford is more than our school; it is our place of education as well as our workplace. Harassment in our workplace not only harms individuals’ mental and physical well-being, but also creates lab, departmental and school-wide cultures in which the entire community cannot do its best work. Furthermore, it erodes our trust in our institution’s ability to provide us a safe working environment. How can we intellectually thrive in an environment in which both peers and professors are repeated targets of gender harassment or sexual violence? How can we as an institution fulfill our research mission as we drive brilliant scholars out of academia with disrespect and harassment? We are no longer satisfied with the status quo of passively waiting for “bad apples” to retire, producing the next generation of a rotten academic culture with our violent inaction. Again, this is a culture problem, and it requires urgent action.

For years, students at Stanford have been sharing the truth of the prevalence of sexual harassment with their leaders and peers, at departmental retreats and various on-campus discussions. It has been 16 months since the National Academies of Science, Engineering, Math and Medicine released their detailed report on the sexual harassment of women. We know that harassment occurs at Stanford, too, corroborated by the Provost reports on sexual harassment on campus. In fall 2018, a group of Stanford Ph.D. students came together to discuss what was needed to move our institution to action. We felt that due to the decentralized nature of Stanford governance, we needed to convene the campus for a discussion about the harassment in our workspaces and what our community, institutional leaders especially, planned to do about it. Thus, the first #StanfordToo event was envisioned and held last April. 

The first #StanfordToo event convened about 200 community members with a panel consisting of Provost Persis Drell, Dean Lloyd Minor, Dean Stephen Graham and Assistant Dean Tom Kenny for an unprecedented discussion with campus leaders regarding issues of sexual harassment, violence and assault at Stanford University. We shared stories of those who trusted us with them to help community members and panelists understand what sexual harassment, assault and violence at Stanford looks like, and will continue to look like should action not be taken. We hoped that in convening the panel, our community could receive answers about the state of action against harassment on campus and serve as a catalyst for further action at all levels of the institution. The panel’s responses to the audience’s pressing questions absolutely revealed the anemic state of Stanford’s action towards preventing sexual harassment, assault and violence as an institution. Panelist responses included: 

  • Verbally affirming that harassment is antithetical to Stanford’s values
  • Emphasis on individual action and action on the parts of survivors, repeatedly imploring them to report. (This ignores the immense power dynamic between trainees and advisors, senior faculty and junior faculty, etc., that makes coming forward a threat to the survivor’s place in their department and general safety.)
  • Stating that their School has recently been hiring women faculty. (This is problematic because it assumes that female junior faculty are responsible for creating a harassment-free workplace.) 
  • Admitting more women grad students (so that they can “cry in the bathroom together” without mentioning any steps taken to protect said female students). 

Provost Drell repeatedly encouraged the audience to fill out the AAU survey, but when the moderator asked her what actions her office would take following the conclusion of the survey, Drell said, “We’ll publish it.” We believe that it is insufficient. No initiatives, no actions, no reforming of existing structures. Such responses from the panelists demonstrate a level of acknowledgment and desire for change, yet at the same time a presence of institutional inertia and apathy. 

Following the #StanfordToo event, students have formed a coalition against harassment called the Stanford Anti-Harassment and Support Squad. Our mission is to end harassment at Stanford and empower targets of harassment. Part of this mission includes continuing to give voice to survivors’ stories. We have created an online repository for survivors’ stories shared at the April event and will continue to collect stories (see our website here: bit.ly/stanfordtoo). While SU crime alerts reveal the problematic prevalence of violence, we seek to expose the bottom of the iceberg consisting of harassment and violence through survivors’ own voices.

In the months since #StanfordToo, we’ve heard more and more of our peers discuss harassment and actions taken to prevent it. Some departments’ administration and faculty have begun to hold more discussion about what anti-harassment actions could look like. But conversations on their own are not enough — at the end of the day, they are just conversations. The culture of gender harassment and sexual violence at Stanford is extremely harmful — to individuals, to communities and to society. It requires urgent action. It requires reforming the way we conduct many of our processes (e.g. faculty and student onboarding and Title IX investigations, to name just a couple). It requires changing the culture and not merely nailing a statement of values to the door. We need to start prioritizing our communities’ health over the reputation of harassers and the university. We need action, courage and leadership to come from administrators and faculty, not just from students for whom this issue is vividly pertinent and urgent. 

To be specific, we are advocating for:

  • A Provost-mandated anti-harassment initiative that requires Schools to track progress in reducing harassment and bettering their workplace culture.
  • A more just and survivor-centric Title IX reporting process at Stanford. It is difficult to trust the process when Stanford’s office does not comply with the law. 
  • No more non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that silence survivors from warning others about repeat offenders.
  • Stanford’s continued administration of the AAU Climate Survey. 
  • Department leaders (i.e. faculty) to step up and change the culture. Demonstrate that your department does not tolerate these behaviors. Educate yourself and your department about interventions available to prevent harassment. Support survivors, their well-being and advocate for their education. Make it easier for students to switch out of toxic labs. Regularly train junior, middle and senior faculty alike on how to foster healthy and safe lab environments. Decide to adopt a departmental code of conduct; require faculty applicants and new students to sign it. Form a working group to roll out culture-changing initiatives. Track your progress by instituting a regular departmental climate survey. 

Changing our campus culture requires courage. Survivors and targets of harassment have continually demonstrated courage by sharing their stories and advocating for a more just institution, a more respectful community. Your turn, Stanford leadership. 

— Kat Gonzales, Ph.D. candidate in Earth System Science, Ana María Tárano, Ph.D. candidate in Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Stanford Anti-Harassment and Support Squad

Contact the Stanford Anti-Harassment and Support Squad at stanfordstemtoo ‘at’ gmail.com.