How could an ombud respond in this way?

Posted: November 17, 2010 by Jender in being afraid to speak, failure to act, sexual harassment

Inspired in part by this blog, I decided to request a meeting with an Ombud at a university with a Leiter-top-10 program in philosophy. As a graduate student, I was sexually harassed by a faculty member in the philosophy department who repeatedly made unwelcome advances; when I reported the problem to the department chair, he refused to support my application to other programs. Neither of the two faculty members in question are still at the university. My intent in meeting with the Ombud was to discuss the situation off record with a person knowledgeable about the university policies, and to see whether there might be any chance of getting some sort of formal apology from the university for failing to provide the training for faculty that might have averted the problem. I suppose the meeting was also partially motivated by a naïve sort of curiosity. I decided not to report the problem outside the department when it occurred, but what if I had gone to the Ombudsman’s Office? How would my complaint have been handled?

The statute of limitations for reporting the problem has long since expired, so I didn’t really expect anything in the way of restitution, or any recommendation for lodging a formal complaint. What I didn’t expect, though, was to have a discussion with a seasoned university Ombud that actually resulted in further hurt.

Among the things the Ombud said to me in the meeting are: “it looks like [he] genuinely loved you” (this was in response to a message he sent after I left the university, asking for forgiveness). And: “you know, we see a lot of people in this office who are unable to express their feelings for others in appropriate ways.” (Men will be men – or people will be people – and there’s nothing we can do about it? Oh, please.) I don’t dispute that the actions might have been motivated by sincere emotions – but to suggest that the responsibility for the harassment can in any way be mitigated by this is to miss the point. The faculty member in question was some 20 or 30 years older than me, and, as my adviser and the only faculty member working in the field I wanted to study, clearly in a position of power. As I made clear to the Ombud, he used that power to effectively eliminate my options for graduate study at other universities. Why would whether his actions were motivated by genuine feelings of “love” matter in any way?

Do Ombuds receive any training in responding to reports of sexual harassment?

Prior to the meeting, I had thought that the best way to start to help others is to do what I should presumably be telling younger women to do: to report the problem. I certainly wasn’t encouraged by the experience. My conversation with the Ombud would have been occasion for a younger and less tough-skinned me to leave academia altogether. How can I help other women if I can’t help myself?

I did, by the way, write an email to the Ombud clearly expressing these and other thoughts. The email was sent a month ago. I have received no response.

Comments are closed.