What Is UW-Madison Doing to Identify and Address Sexual Misconduct by Faculty and Staff?

In these past weeks, it’s been horrifying to listen to the testimony of over 100 young women about the sexual abuse they experienced from a doctor associated with one of our fellow Big Ten campuses. It’s been impossible for me to watch these events without asking what we at UW-Madison need to learn from this.

We have a huge and very decentralized campus. As I’ve noted before, this university – students, staff and faculty – is about the size of Janesville. Because of this size, it is inevitable that some bad things will happen here, despite all of our efforts. Indeed, we too have received reports of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, from members of our community. Let me say a few things about what we have done to respond better to these problems and our ongoing efforts at improvement. Because the MSU situation is on all of our minds, I want to talk specifically about situations in which a staff or faculty member is accused of misconduct.

Let me start with a clear statement of values: We are committed to providing a welcoming, supportive environment in which all students, faculty, and staff are able to succeed and thrive. When things happen that harm individuals in our community, we must first assist those who have been harmed with support services. We must also provide clear channels for reporting, and appropriately respond to these reports. Finally, we must work to change the culture so these behaviors are no longer tolerated in our community.

We’ve done several things in recent years to improve our response to sexual misconduct among staff and faculty. In 2015, we hired a full-time Title IX coordinator within the Office of Compliance, who is coordinating our response to reports of sexual misconduct. (Title IX is the legislation that guides educational institutions’ responses to these charges.) We created a campus specific policy on sexual harassment and sexual violence that’s been endorsed by the staff and faculty governance groups.

Furthermore, over this past year we created and implemented mandatory training for all faculty and staff on sexual harassment and sexual violence. Over 93 percent of our workforce have completed training. This training must be completed for employees to receive any future wage increase. The training clearly describes how a victim can report a problem and how to respond if someone else reports a problem to you. It emphasizes the critical role bystanders can play in responding to improper behavior. More information about the training and other campus resources is here: https://compliance.wisc.edu/titleix/

Our UW Madison Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence now clearly defines which UW-Madison employees are “Title IX Responsible Employees” and communicates their duty to provide all reports of sexual misconduct to the campus Title IX Coordinator. This year, we’ll provide additional mandatory training to those employees to ensure they can carry out that responsibility.

But the work of building a culture that discourages sexual misconduct and appropriately responds to such allegations cannot be accomplished by people in “Title IX Responsible” roles alone. With our campus policy now in place, we need better systems and practices to ensure we are listening broadly, identifying trends or patterns that require action, and equipping managers with the training and tools needed to address these issues.

Because we are a very decentralized organization, historically the reporting of sexual harassment (when it is reported) has been to supervisors or department chairs. Much of the campus response to allegations of sexual misconduct has been handled at the local level, through a resolution process that allows the complainant to remain anonymous. While this provided an avenue for problems to be resolved that would otherwise go unreported, it also meant that we in more senior positions were often unaware of a pattern of problems unless an individual was willing to come forward publicly.

This is something we have to change. It is not an adequate excuse to say, “we didn’t know about this,” particularly in cases where multiple individuals have made problems known. Being able to spot troublesome trends and address them swiftly is essential to ensuring our community remains safe.

In the coming months, I will challenge UW-Madison to ensure that all reports of sexual misconduct, other than those made to people who must hold them in confidence if asked, are reported to the Office of Compliance. We must provide a straightforward way to make sure that the information about these complaints is sent forward beyond the immediate unit.

The natural starting place for this is with stronger centralized reporting and record-keeping. Title IX Responsible Employees, reporting to the Office of Compliance, will play a key role in this. We are also working to strengthen record-keeping systems through the Office of Compliance and related units, such as the Division of Student Life and Office of Human Resources. I am asking these units to accelerate their efforts and present a broader plan to me this semester. And, I am ensuring that the funds are available to carry out this project.

But, of course, simply knowing about complaints isn’t enough. We also have to have the correct mechanisms to respond. Our Title IX Coordinator and her deputies are trained in helping identify an appropriate response to complaints. I’ve also begun conversations with our shared governance bodies to identify and address further policy changes that may assist us in gathering needed information and taking action where appropriate.

As this issue has taken on national prominence, we’ve seen an upsurge in requests from units across campus for additional, more customized training. I commend the units across campus that are taking this proactive approach. To help meet this demand, we are creating an additional training position within the Office of Compliance.

The Provost’s Advisory Group on Sexual Assault and Misconduct (PAGSAM) continues to be an important driver of policy and program changes in this area. I am grateful to all who are a part of that effort.

Last Friday I received an email from one of our alums who was following the MSU situation: “I am not at all suggesting anything comparable is happening at UW, but don’t take any chances. Be on the right side of human dignity. Listen to victims, take every claim of abuse or misconduct seriously and respect due process – regardless of who is accused.“

“I know this isn’t easy, but transparency is a good place to start. You will have the support of the UW community.”

I promise the writer, and all of you, that I and the entire UW leadership team are engaged with these questions. We must use the current moment of high awareness and concern about sexual misconduct as an opportunity to change our campus culture and deal as effectively as possible with the problems of sexual assault and harassment on our campus.