Untrustworthy Activist?

I am a faculty member at major graduate program. Like many such programs we have a variety of climate problems. Also like many departments we have many members working to improve our practices and improve the situation. One graduate student who has been especially active in departmental discussions of our problems has also been active in another way. She has made multiple formal complaints to the university alleging misconduct on the part of faculty members and other graduate students. As is required by university policy, these complaints have all been thoroughly investigated. Every one of her complaints has been found to be completely unsupported by evidence and therefore without merit. The student continues to complain about even the issues that have been formally resolved with findings of fact completely at odds with her allegations. Many in the department have been distracted from our real problems by these false complaints and accompanying formal investigations. The student seems to either not realize or not care that her steady stream of false allegations has greatly slowed the attempts at progress that many of us are working to promote. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with a situation like this one?

This is an extremely tricky situation.  The first thing, though, is not to assume that the complaints were without merit simply because they were dismissed this way.  Sadly, this happens all too often even with very real, very serious and repeated cases of harassment.

Two concrete suggestions: i) From your description, it sounds like there are ongoing positive programs to improve the climate.  Would it be possible to find the student something constructive to do – ideally, a specific task that can’t devolve into complaining – to allow her to be involved in a targeted way?  Sometimes those who are included in the constructive work for change learn how hard it is to do things perfectly, or even be effective in the way intended!  ii) Does the student have an approachable friend among the grad students that she trusts?  If so, someone might speak to the friend and ask for suggestions about how to approach the student to discuss strategic issues, e.g., how her allegations have slowed the progress others are trying to achieve and what might be a better approach. If the student you are concerned about is included in such a strategy session, she may feel she is on the inside of the efforts for change, rather than in an oppositional position. Speaking to the friend might also provide some valuable background information about the student, what explains her actions, and how the department might support her more effectively.

But whether or not these complaints actually were without merit, my view is the same: you and your colleagues who are trying to address the problems should simply go on trying to address them.  This is what matters most to improving the climate of the department.

 –Bleen

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3 thoughts on “Untrustworthy Activist?

  1. I am a graduate student in a major department with a variety of climate problems. My department also has a couple students who file complaints when necessary (when behavior is particularly egregious or when problematic behavior is not adequately resolved through informal processes). Not all of these complaints have come out in the complainants’ favor, but that does not mean that the complaints were “without merit,” and I think it is highly problematic to make such an inference.

    This inference is faulty in part because there is no reliable connection between a complaint’s dismissal and its merit. Take the poster’s example: the case of dismissal due to insufficient evidence. It is often very difficult to produce evidence of misconduct. My university often relies upon the testimony of persons the administration deems relevant to the complaint. (In some cases the complainant has no power to even call her own witnesses!) In the cases I have been closely involved with, when the administration heard conflicting accounts, they decided there was insufficient evidence. This does not necessarily entail that the misconduct did not happen, it just means that the university was unable or unwilling to take action.

    Additionally, there are a lots of ways in which the complaint process can go wrong that might result in an unjust dismissal. Many of these occurrences are opaque to those who are not directly involved in the process, so I’ll mention some from my personal experience here: the recipients of complaints skewing testimonies by violating confidentiality policies–meanwhile complainants are threatened with sanctions for discussing complaints with anyone in the university; the administration refusing to treat proper Title IX complaints *as* Title IX complaints (and so the assessment standards were different, and rights afforded to each party were inequitable); the administration admitting its belief that it is not legally bound by Title IX; the administration lying to complainants about their civil rights, subsequently denying complainants certain civil rights; and the administration investigating complaints in terms of policy violations that did not accurately map on to the actual complaints (and without notifying the complainant that it was doing so until the conclusion of the case). Any one of these mishaps could easily skew the outcome of a complaint without entailing that the complaint was without merit. It also seems to me that many of these mishaps would question the legitimacy of any “findings of fact” contrary to the complaint that the university might put forth.

    I also think the inference is problematic because—as evidenced by this poster—it paints activists in a negative light. It is rarely in a complainant’s best interest to file in the first place, let alone to persist in securing justice. If someone is persisting, instead of responding with thoughts like “Her complaints were deemed without merit by the university, and so her complaints must be false,” I think it would be much better for the overall climate for faculty to wonder if, perhaps, the university has failed the complainant somehow that would result in her continued persistence. I think the latter scenario is–unfortunately–far more likely.

  2. I submitted this original question and am grateful for the responses. Bleen’s concrete suggestions are helpful and the concluding advice offered is powerful in its simplicity.

    About not “assuming” that each of the many dismissed complaints is without merit, I should clarify that this language simply reflects the formal findings of investigations that are known to me. I recognize that such findings are not indisputable. One possibility is that in one or more of the many dismissed complaints from the student in question a mistaken conclusion was reached. Another possibility is that the complaints were all properly dismissed.

    Concerned Grad describes an overall situation very different from the one present at my university. At my university, fortunately, the vast array of administrative misconduct reported by Concerned Grad would require a large conspiracy across many different administrative offices already known not to work well together. If this is what Concerned Grad is facing than she/he has my sympathy.

  3. It is actually remarkably common for universities to find against complainants even when problems are huge and real. The discussions in this APA newsletter do an excellent job of explaining the institutional mechanisms which can lead to such results: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/collection/D03EBDAB-82D7-4B28-B897-C050FDC1ACB4/v11n2_Feminism.pdf.

    I must say I’m also a little bit worried about people discussing the student’s complaints in the way that you (undoubtedly unintentionally) are doing in your post. Her complaints may well be legitimate, and treating her activism as a problem and her as unreliable could have a very damaging effect on her career. In fact, depending on what people are saying, it might well constitute retaliation under Title IX.

    I would urge everyone to focus on fixing the problems, and try not to make any assumptions about the merit or otherwise of these complaints. My experience (which is by now substantial) has made me all too aware that people of genuine good will can fail to be aware of some truly horrible things taking place in their departments.

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