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Pitt disciplines employees after investigatingsex harassment, student-faculty relationships

April 2, 2018
The nearly full moon rises above the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pitsburgh in Oakland on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016.
The nearly full moon rises above the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pitsburgh in Oakland on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016.

An investigation into the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Communication over allegations of sexual harassment and an alarmingly high prevalence of student-faculty sexual relationships has spurred the college to impose disciplinary sanctions against some of the people involved.

“The University of Pittsburgh is dedicated to providing an inclusive environment where all are welcome and respected,” Pitt spokeswoman Deborah Todd told the Tribune-Review. “These actions taken reinforce this value.”

University officials would not specify the number or types of disciplinary sanctions imposed.

Kathleen Blee, dean of Pitt’s school of arts and sciences, lamented Thursday in a letter to the school’s community that the months-long Title IX investigation had “revealed failures of systems and failures of character” that demand urgent attention.

She cited problems with the recent climate as well as sexual misconduct allegations dating to more than a decade ago.

“The investigations found a consistent pattern in which women were not valued and respected as their male colleagues,” Blee said. “This resulted in an environment in which the inappropriate acts of the few were tolerated by the silence of others.”

Blee said the investigation’s findings have left her “disappointed but determined.”

She pledged not to rest “until the situation is changed.”

“We should do better,” Blee wrote, “and we will do better, beginning immediately.”

The dean said she’s working with the Title IX office and Department of Communication to rebuild the department’s decision-making committee.

Training for faculty, staff, grad students

She also intends to mandate Title IX and inclusivity training for all faculty, staff and graduate students, and to consult with an outside facilitator on improving mentoring practices — “especially for women and members of underrepresented minority groups.”

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher disclosed in late December that the college had begun investigating the department in response to allegations of a long-standing culture of sexual harassment and discrimination.

The internal probe was triggered by a Dec. 13 essay published in Ms. magazine by a former communications professor describing “a climate that was hostile to women and people of color” and potentially “unsafe for grad students.”

Carol Stabile, who served as a professor in the Communications and Women’s Studies departments from 1994 to 2005, chronicled an atmosphere where colleagues regularly made sexual comments and discussed their sexual interest in students. Stabile shared anecdotes from graduate students who had been pursued by professors promising favors or job offers.

Stabile further contended that the department’s culture “was hostile toward women — one that harbored serial sexual harassers and that had a well-documented history of not being able to hire and retain women faculty.”

Blee said the university will be vigilant in ensuring that “such behaviors no longer place us at risk of losing accomplished and promising scholars and students.”

Pitt’s communications department has been under scrutiny over similar allegations before.

In 2004, the university conducted a separate audit that looked into concerns raised about student-faculty relationships within the department. That report concluded the department was generally healthy, in spite of evidence of relationships between senior faculty and students, according to reports by The Pitt News, the student newspaper.

Last March, the university updated its policy on student-faculty relationships.

The policy prohibits faculty and staff members from having romantic or sexual relationships with students they supervise directly — teaching assistants, athletes and students they advise, tutor or mentor — and strongly discourages any consensual relationships between faculty or staff members and students.

The policy states that even consensual romantic relationships between individuals in positions of unequal power threaten to disrupt the academic environment and pose the risks of “conflict of interest, favoritism and exploitation.”

Consequences for violating the policy depend on each case’s facts and circumstances — including the disclosure of the relationship and when it began, the policy states. Disciplinary sanctions get determined using the “preponderance of the evidence standard.”

Employees may dispute sanctions via the university’s appeal process.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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