From the Community | Graduate workers seek recourse for sexual harassment

Published May 8, 2024, 11:55 p.m., last updated May 9, 2024, 7:30 p.m.

After six months of bargaining, Stanford Graduate Workers’ Union (SWGU) reached a tentative agreement with the University for a grievance procedure, which will be the enforcement mechanism for the forthcoming first contract. However, the University proposed to exclude sexual harassment, sexual assault and other prohibited sexual conduct as grievable from the contract.

“Any determination pursuant to the University’s Sexual Harassment policy shall be final and not grievable under this Agreement.” 

This exclusion could have been predicted from Stanford, the institution that employed Jay Fliegelman (accused of assault, deceased) and Franco Moretti (accused of harassment and assault, retired), and currently employs Vincent Barletta (who violated Stanford’s sexual harassment policy in the early 2010s). The Daily investigated Barletta in June 2022, but he quietly returned to teaching this winter in spite of calls for his termination.

The latest proposal says nothing about power abuse and bullying. Our colleagues at MIT said it best: “protected class […] does not cover cases of power-based harassment, more commonly called bullying.”

Like MIT graduate workers, Stanford graduate workers deserve comprehensive protections that will allow them to effectively secure their persons and their labor against illegal infringement including harassment and discrimination in all its forms. 

Reporting rates for harassment and discrimination of all types are abysmally low at Stanford. Of IDEAL respondents, only 6% of graduate workers who experienced discrimination and/or harassment made a formal report. That means 94% resolved to not make a formal complaint. Yet 43% of them did seek out resources for advice, support, or information. These numbers suggest that graduate workers do not see the University’s existing procedures as capable of providing meaningful recourse.

In bargaining with SWGU, University representatives admitted that low reporting stems from lack of trust in existing procedures, and argued that trust takes time to build. They also argued that protections offered by the union against sexual harassment, sexual assault, other prohibited sexual conduct, power abuse, and bullying would be redundant to existing procedures under the University’s Sexual Harassment policy, and not improve reporting outcomes. 

Trust will not arise from procedures that are both wholly inadequate and lacking oversight from the start. Under the current system, graduate workers report sexual misconduct to the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Education (SHARE) Title IX office or the Stanford Police Department. But advocates for survivors of sexual violence decry existing reporting processes as confusing and lacking transparency.

Besides, SHARE Title IX is simply not equipped to adjudicate for power differentials across academic ranks. Take for example the fact that only 11% of graduate respondents to the IDEAL survey “strongly agreed” with the statement, “In my department or work unit, it is easy to discuss difficult issues and problems.” This finding alone tells us that fear of retaliation is an everyday reality for most graduate workers at Stanford. But SHARE reported a grand total of zero—nil!—reports of retaliation in AY 2022-2023.

As it stands, the University directs graduate workers to their dean if the complaint involves power abuse, bullying, and/or an allegation of sexual misconduct that does not trigger a SHARE Title IX investigation. (Little known fact: the University’s human resources department does not process complaints against faculty.) The dean individually and subjectively judges the complaint as meeting an undisclosed threshold of requiring an investigation.

With or without SHARE Title IX investigations, the dean is the last stop for graduate workers dealing with— or simply suspecting — sexual harassment, sexual assault, other prohibited sexual conduct, power abuse and/or bullying. Once a Title IX investigation concludes, SHARE Title IX typically issues recommendations to the Dean of the respondent, which might include sanctions of the respondent. The University’s Sexual Harassment policy does not guarantee the implementation of these recommendations. As a result, bad actors behave with impunity at Stanford, because they know that they will likely never face sanctions or public scrutiny. 

Recall the case of Barletta. The pseudonymous Rachel told investigators that she went to her dean to ask for institutional support on how to navigate her working relationship with Barletta. She recalled Dean Debra Satz “laughing and telling her, ‘The only thing I can think to offer you is advice from an older, wiser woman, which is when a man is acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you just have to tell him to stop.’” Then Satz showed Rachel the door. 

Rachel was not the first graduate worker to be impacted by Barletta and the University’s callous betrayal. Barletta had “sexually [had] harassed his student a decade ago” and “his inappropriate behavior [had] never stopped.” The pseudonymous Jeanne said of Barletta’s continued behavior: “[it’s] all a riff on the same story […] he has refined his techniques.” The story is a glaring example of how — when survivors lack real recourse and perpetrators lack accountability — perpetrators are emboldened to continue their harassing behaviors. 

Graduate workers need union-backed channels to process all grievances, including those that fall under the University’s Sexual Harassment policy. Moving forward, the possibility of filing a union grievance will serve as a deterrent against all forms of discrimination and harassment acknowledged in the contract.

Union-supported grievance processes will not only provide a means to challenge misconduct, but also encourage resolution. Under union-backed grievance processes, cases are typically resolved before reaching arbitration, because the prospect of arbitration encourages parties to settle disputes. Additionally, the threat of outside arbitration will further dissuade bad actors.

Everything would have been different for Jeanne and Rachel had they had real recourse. Jeanne had neither a union nor a union-backed grievance process, and was left alone to navigate the complex landscape of SHARE Title IX and University administrators, some of whom acted like bullies, “appear[ing] to be looking for a narrative that she “wanted” to be intimately involved with Barletta.” If sanctions following Jeanne had been effective, Rachel might have not faced Barletta’s harassment in the years to come. Instead, “while sanctions from Jeanne’s Title IX case were still in place […] [Rachel’s] case […] emerge[d].”

Going forward, the primary point of contact for graduate workers facing misconduct must be SGWU, and not University administrators. The Union must be able to empower graduate workers to seek real recourse regardless of the nature of the mistreatment. 

With full provisions for non-discrimination, SGWU will play a crucial role in securing the workplace against all illegal infringement through codified procedures. Every union member will have the right to request the presence of a union representative at a disciplinary meeting or at any meeting where disciplinary action is anticipated. Should a graduate worker suspect a violation of their contract or any illegal infringement of their labor rights and decide to take action, their case will be assigned to a union steward, who will be trained, experienced, and legally protected, and will leverage every available resource to address the concern.

Moreover, if the graduate worker experiences retaliation after complaining, they will also have full protections because retaliation is not just power-based harassment, but illegal in the state of California. Finally, if cases cannot be resolved through this mediation, the union will have the ability to escalate adjudication to a third-party neutral arbitrator. 

The only way graduate workers will ensure the safety of their workplace is with a strong contract that includes a union-backed process with full, unrestricted protections. 

Graduate workers: we are counting on you to show up to SWGU’s action on May 16. Be sure to attend Contract Action Committee meetings, and your area meetings. The time to win that strong contract is now.

Chloé Brault is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature. Sophie Jean Walton is a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics and a member of the Stanford Graduate Workers Union Bargaining Committee.

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