Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is it the university's fault if you don't go to class?

There’s lots of political news, of course, plus several stories from the world of education that merit comment. Given Curmie’s schedule right now, it’s unlikely he’ll even make a dent in the backlog. But here’s a start.

We begin Operation Catch-up with the saga of Balayla Ahmad, a black, Muslim woman who was studying at the University of Bridgeport, hoping to become a chiropractor. Now she’s suing the university, who, she says, ignored her allegations of sexual harassment against a fellow student but called in the FBI when he, in retribution, began spreading rumors alleging she was a terrorist.

Ahmad alleges that the other student “made repeated sexual advances at her, often hurling obscenities such as ‘I want to eat you like I am eating this sub [sandwich]’ or yelling ‘I'm going to cuff you’ while holding a pair of handcuffs.” According to the lawsuit, Ahmad talked to more than one teacher about her situation, one of whom urged her not to go to the dean, as he would speak to the harasser. Eventually, Ahmad—against advice—went to the university president, who apparently wasn’t much help.

Then campus security showed up on her doorstep with allegations of terrorism, threatening her with bringing in the FBI (as, apparently, they did). Ahmad’s attorney says “The sexual harassment investigation never occurred. Instead it became about her.” The FBI found no substantiation for the charges against Ms. Ahmad, but somewhere along the way, she was removed as a student. The university is declining comment—and we’ve heard nothing but Ahmad’s side of the story… this may or may not be a relevant concern.

Assuming what she says is both true and all there is to know, it’s pretty damning for the university. There are three problems: the lack of action on the sexual harassment allegation, the apparently swift action on what turned out to be unfounded reports of terrorism, and the failure to perceive what in retrospect (at least) would seem to be a pretty obvious link between the charges.

Let’s take these one step at a time. The news reports don’t make it clear whether the harasser ultimately stopped as a result of university action; they suggest only that Ms. Ahmad didn’t think they would. A teacher reportedly told Ms. Ahmad that the university normally doesn’t immediately suspend students for the level of sexual harassment she alleges; the dean subsequently told her that his “hands were tied.” The teacher was almost certainly both telling the truth and describing a reasonable policy. The dean, probably not so much.

I’ve dealt with two cases of student-on-student harassment in my career. Both happened to have occurred when I was a graduate student teaching Beginning Acting. One involved two theatre majors and stemmed from the out-of-class rehearsal conduct of the male partner in a two-character scene. The female student brought the case to me. I talked with her for nearly two hours, then took the case to the department chair, complete with a lengthy written report. I don’t know exactly what happened after that in procedural terms, but I do know that the female student agreed to complete the scene with the young man provided there was always another person present at their rehearsals and that she’d never be partnered with him again.

I know, too, that the department chair read the riot act to the male student, who seems to have been more unaware of the inappropriateness of his actions than really being a jackass. He was, I think, not allowed to participate in the next round of departmental auditions, although he subsequently became an active member of the department, as far as I know without further incidents. I received both a personal and a written apology; so did the female student. And that was that.

The other case involved two non-majors, and dealt with in-class activity. The man in question always managed to position himself close to the woman on days when we were talking about concepts rather than rehearsing scenes or doing exercises. He’d then mumble or whisper sexually explicit suggestions to her while covering his face with his baseball cap or when I was looking elsewhere. I suspected that something was going on, but it wasn’t until the young woman talked to me after class that I knew exactly what.

I consulted the chair again about what to do, and he said, and I believe this is a direct quote, “Send him to me. You don’t get paid enough to deal with this shit.” (Good boss!) He asked me when my class met, cleared his calendar for the beginning of the next class period, and told me to send the male student to him as soon as he arrived, without telling him why. I did. I don’t know what was said in that room, but I do know two things: 1). the big tough football player returned to class 20 or 30 minutes later having obviously been crying, and 2). there was never a problem again.

It is unreasonable for Ms. Ahmad or her lawyer to think the university should have expelled the alleged harasser without due process, especially since (as my own experience indicates) there are often less drastic but nonetheless effective means of solving the problem. Plus, of course, as this case itself demonstrates, allegations aren’t always true—there is no objective reason to believe that a specific claim of sexual harassment is any more credible than a specific charge of terrorist sympathies.

All that said, the “my hands are tied” defense is more often than not the go-to position of the lazy, the diffident, and the dishonest. It may be true that the dean was not in position to impose a punishment on the alleged harasser, but that would only be true if a judicial board or some similar agency had reviewed the case and dismissed the charges. (They might have been incorrect to do so, but such a decision might well have been founded on an innocent-until-proven-guilty rationale rather than on a firm belief in the male student’s innocence.) Even if the dean had no authority to exact a penalty, he could certainly use the power of his office—as my former boss used the power of his—to make it very clear that any further complaints against the alleged harasser would be taken very seriously indeed. But—apparently, at least—he punted, instead.

Campus security types always like to pretend they’re more important than they are. If every college and university fired every campus cop who is more interested in strutting than in serving, the unemployment lines in college towns would be out the door. Ahmad argues, according to the Huffington Post, that “college officials recklessly disseminated false accusations by the harasser that they had good reason to believe were unreliable and threatened her with arrest by the FBI.” That’s a serious charge, especially if a). it really was college officials disseminating the accusations, and b). they did so even if they suspected the reports were of dubious provenance.

But imagine what would have happened if the alleged harasser’s claims had been legitimate: if security hadn’t investigated, if the FBI hadn’t been called in… and if there had been an attack of some kind. Yes, it is a threat to say you’re going to call in the FBI. But even a die-hard civil libertarian like me doesn’t read that as inherently creating an environment in which it is impossible to do one’s work.

It’s important to note that Bridgeport apparently didn’t suspend Ms. Ahmad for either her allegations against a fellow student or for his against her. Here’s the ABC report: “Ahmad was dismissed from the school in June 2009 after, she says in the complaint, she was unable to attend class because of the alleged persistent harassment as well as perceived threats of federal prosecution.” Translation: she flunked out.

Forgive me, but I just have a little trouble believing that the harassment was so severe and unchecked, and the (perceived) threat of prosecution so portentous that it was impossible for a 35-year-old woman to go to class. (And if they were, dropping as opposed to failing classes would seem to be an appropriate course of action.) Not that students have ever before blamed their truancy on someone else, of course…

There’s enough on the surface here that the Bridgeport administration might be worth a Curmie nomination. But until we find out a little more information, this one is on hold.

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