University of California, Riverside professor talks pros and cons of post-secondary policy frameworks
Queer feminist theorist Jennifer Doyle spoke at a conference hosted at Concordia on March 20. “Harassment and the Unraveling of the Queer Commons” discussed the current climate for queer feminist theorists and the interplay between individuals who report sexual harassment and the power dynamics of post-secondary institutions.
Doyle, an English professor from the University of California, Riverside, has long been interested in the handling of sexual harassment cases within educational institutions. As the daughter of a feminist activist, when she was young, Doyle attended local National Organization for Women chapter meetings where women strategized and compiled Title XI lawsuits.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title XI “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs” in 16,500 school districts and 7,000 post-secondary institutions in the United States. Traditionally, Title XI lawsuits created change on a case-by-case basis, Doyle explained. However, she said that in the last five years, there has been a “wave of activism,” partly consisting of more individuals going to the press or other public avenues, such as personal blogs, to share their stories. “That story is not going to come out any other way,” Doyle said.
However, sharing personal stories with news media outlets often comes as a double-edged sword, Doyle argued, since the publicity that results from the article is almost never in the best interest of the community impacted by the sexual harassment.
“The comments section of that [article becomes] a gutter,” Doyle said, where individual experiences are publicly contested. Those comments sections tend to become a site for further sexual harassment, she added.
Doyle explained that post-secondary institutions need to improve the way they try to help those who come forward navigate the public attention they receive during an ongoing investigation. She described her experience as a faculty member when handling cases of sexual harassment made by students as being “part of a machine.” She added there is typically little commitment to the well-being of individuals who report cases of sexual misconduct.
On the one hand, while Doyle criticized the tendency of discussions surrounding policy reform to frame “sexual harassment [as] happening because there [is] a policy failure,” she nonetheless recognized the important role those policies play.
Doyle also emphasized that, while post-secondary institutions as a whole are limited in how they can publicly respond to sexual harassment cases, individual faculty departments have more liberty with issuing public statements, particularly when it comes to supporting those who come forward with their stories.
“What a [department] can do is […] put its weight behind the victims and say, ‘We are grateful to these women who are coming forward and sharing their stories,’” Doyle said, specifically referencing what the astronomy department at the University of California, Berkeley, did during the investigation of professor Geoff Marcy.
The faculty members of the astronomy department collectively agreed to publish a letter on the department’s website, stating they “fully support the survivors of harassment […] and reject any suggestion that [their] sympathies should be with the perpetrators of sexual harassment.”
“I don’t think the [department] needs to wait to say that,” Doyle said. “You can communicate a lot of support for victims without actually getting into details about the case.”
Photo by Alex Hutchins