The journalism student, normally confident and assertive, recalls a sense of paralysis stemming from the awkward moments that began a little over a year ago.
“You don’t want to get the teachers in trouble, you don’t want to get in trouble yourself and talking about sexual harassment is so embarrassing as it is.”
Isabel Springer now knows she is hardly alone in facing a vexing set of options about how to handle faculty members who seem to show a little too much personal interest in female students. Springer recounts in detail a problem that numerous girls have faced on campus – and now many are sharing their experiences with each other.
Not knowing who to turn to for help and a seemingly inadequate complaint procedure further blurs the already complex issue.While current grievance policies are far from perfect, AAU has begun work on bettering them – and in the meantime, students are advised to raise their voice if someone crosses the line.
Sitting in the dimly-lit and slightly noisy Café Klarov by the Malostranska metro, Springer – third year student and editor of At the Lennon Wall – speaks of her experience with an AAU staff member. She recalls that he frequently asked her to come into his office for seemingly trivial reasons. Afterwards, “He texted me on my phone if I would like to go on a date with him.” Springer had never given him her phone number but surmised he found it in her file at the university. Springer replied, saying that it would be unprofessional – as he is a member of the administration.
About two or three days later, he called her into his office again. In the prior week, Springer had received an offer for an internship from one of her professors. Her would-be date was quick to point out that he had recommended Springer and submitted her CV – without her knowledge. “Sure it’s nice to suggest a few students and if that had been on a completely professional level that would have been fine,” Springer says. But this was something else “because he had asked me out on a date before and I refused.” She “felt really pressured in giving him a reward” but in the end neither accepted his invitation nor took the internship.
A second student, who felt too embarrassed to share her complete story, said that during the first year of her studies she went to dinner with her professor’s middle-aged friend. She said the professor did not pressure her per se, but she felt that if she did not go, her grades might be jeopardized.
Springer also had an encounter with this professor at an AAU party, where he introduced himself by his first name, but Springer preferred to use “Mr.” and kept the conversation “professional.” He paid her a lot of attention, offered to share a taxi with her, lent her his jacket against the cold and then sat very close to her in the car. When he got out, “he shook my hand for a good five minutes and gave me kisses on both cheeks,” said Springer, looking uncomfortable.
He then pointed to his apartment window and told her if she ever needs him, this where he lives. He gave her extra money for the taxi fare, calling it “my treat.” Upon her arrival home, “he had already written me an email saying that he couldn’t find me on Facebook.” A series of emails followed for about three months and an invitation for coffee, during which Springer “threw in the fact that I’m not single.” After that – to Springer’s relief – the professor did not contact her again.
As for why she did not seek guidance from the university, Springer said “the problem is that these people have really great authority, especially with your teachers because they give you your grades.” Springer knew she would find herself in the professor’s class sooner or later under the terms of her program. Besides, she says, “There’s no place to go. I mean who was I going to tell? Especially because if you have a male dean, who are you going to tell?” AAU does provide a mechanism for filing complaints and the procedure is outlined in the Student Handbook. On page 48, section 2.i it states that “Allegations of improper conduct by Staff Members or Lectures should, if possible, be raised with the President.”
Section 2.ii states that at any time any one may “file a complaint against a Staff Member or Lecturer with the Supervisory Board. The Supervisory Board shall address and determine such a complaint according to its own rules and procedures.” The members of the board are listed on AAU’s website under the Governance section but their emails are inaccessible in the university’s Gmail database.
If a student is not satisfied with the supervisors’ decision, they may appeal the Board of Trustees, who have also pledged to deal with appeals according to its own rules, leading to a final decision. The trustees are also listed on AAU’s website but only one of its six members can be reached via the university email. This procedure is also described in the university Codex, on page 21, section IV.K.31. This document is accessible to anyone with an AAU Gmail account.
In the beginning of May, AAU was assessed – in great detail – by the Western Association of Schools & Colleges, which the school has applied to join. WASC then sent a report to AAU regarding its “partial fulfilment of the requirements for candidacy” for accreditation. The report is generally glowing but does cite AAU’s complaint mechanism, pointing out that “many of the policies and procedures are outdated or do not fit the present situation…”
The WASC team also found that “they lack a clear opportunity or mediation initially through informal consultation among the parties involved (students, faculty, administrators, and/or staff.)” The formal complaint protocols and procedures are sometimes vague “and often the president and the Board are engaged too early in the process of adjudication [settling a dispute] or appeal.”
Additionally, it stated that records of complaints – including student complaints – “do not appear to be regularly maintained…for analysis to reveal systematic problems.” Katarina Svitkova, AAU vice president and accreditation liaison officer, says, “I do not think that sexual harassment specifically was the reason for the WASC comments; it was rather the lack of the informal and ‘soft’ steps before going for the official complaints and procedures, and also the relatively fast progression to the highest instance, i.e. the president.”
Svitkova, who is also the vice provost for student affairs, said WASC “recommended to emphasize the opportunity to solve many issues in an informal manner and via agreement rather than complaint and official resolution.” She added, “We are working on updating the codex, including the Disciplinary Code” and said she expects the update will be done in time for the next edition of the Student Handbook – hopefully sooner, ideally in March at the Board of Trustees meeting.
For the time being, students may also seek help at the Personal Development & Psychological Counseling Center, directed by Ivana Schmidtova. “I am here for the client,” said Schmidtova – when students confide in her, all of the information is completely confidential (with the sole exception of criminal cases). However, Schmidtova is not in a position to “act on behalf of the client.” Her office hours are Mon. 10am-2pm and 5-7pm.
Students are entitled up to three sessions per year. Svitkova adds that even though informal procedures are not specified in the Disciplinary Code, students are encouraged to discuss their problems whenever necessary. “We usually recommend talking to the dean or assistant dean first, but should the student be afraid that they will not help, or if the student just does not want to talk to them, they can contact any person (provost, me, Student Services people).”
But as she admits, “Unfortunately…this encouragement has been insufficient for the difficult situations, such as sexual harassment.” She hopes that the expanded Disciplinary Code will help to prevent and remedy such problems.
A Letter to the Editor in response to this article by Alan Klaustengl can be found here.