Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chapter 11

As Ellen Stenkovsky started to reread the article by Kate Morgan appearing in that morning's Washington Post, she remembered how Lenin had described some setback suffered by the Bolsheviks in the pre-revolutionary period in a book entitled, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. This article, she knew, would result in at least two steps back for the women's revolution here at NDU.

The article began on the very front page of the paper, though "below the fold." It certainly had a lurid headline: "Campus Furor over Anonymous Sex Charge against Renowned Black NDU Prof." As soon as she had seen this headline earlier that morning, she knew that this would spell the end of the `unwanted' posters in The New Dominion.

The article began: "NDU University Professor Charles Gibson, a leading authority on African-American literature, declared that racial prejudice was the motive for the NDU student newspaper reprinting an anonymous complaint against him allegedly written in the stall of a woman's lavatory on campus.

"The alleged graffiti reprinted by The New Dominion read, `Prof. Gibson told me: If I want a higher grade, I should wear a shorter skirt.'"

Ellen knew one thing: she herself hadn't written this. She was sure, though, that this was probably a real complaint. But she also knew that nobody had filed a charge against Professor Gibson here at SASO.

"`The African-American professors at NDU,' said Gibson, `have long been aware that certain parties within the university do not want us here. But since they can't move against us openly, they resort to this kind of dirty trick to discredit us.'"

The article then quoted Gibson saying that he was contemplating filing a lawsuit against the student newspaper for publishing this unsubstantiated allegation, and against the university for allowing it to do so.

The article continued: "When asked to comment, New Dominion editor and NDU student Tricia Raditz said, `We had no idea Professor Gibson was black. We would never have reprinted this if we had known he was.'"

The fact that Gibson was black shouldn't make a difference, Ellen knew. Sexual assault was an "equal opportunity" offense, committed by males from all races. Whenever they were charged with it, though, Ellen's experience was that men from minority groups always claimed that they were the victims of racism.

Actually, Ellen had doubts about some of these claims to minority status. What were Hispanics, after all? As far as she could see, most of them were white people who spoke Spanish. She could definitely see through their little game. This was not the time, however, for the battle against "Hispanic" males.

In any case, the white male was the ideal sexual assailant since he couldn't claim that he was the victim of racism. Proceeding against white males, then, was far easier than proceeding against non-white ones. But since white males were the main oppressors of women, it was necessary to proceed against them first anyway.

As Lenin had argued in another context, it was sometimes necessary to form a "united front" with less powerful adversaries against more powerful ones. In the context of the women's revolution of today, then, it was essential for the movement to maintain an alliance with black males against the white male patriarchy.

It was only after the more powerful adversaries were defeated that the revolutionaries could then turn their attention to the less powerful ones. Before then, it was imperative for the revolutionaries to avoid antagonizing their less powerful opponents to the point where they joined forces with their more powerful ones.

But thanks to Tricia Raditz, that is exactly what was happening. The Post article then went on to quote President Michaelson condemning The New Dominion for having printed this unsubstantiated charge against a prominent African-American scholar and announcing the dismissal of Tricia Raditz as editor-in-chief.

"`At first I thought these "unwanted" posters were useful since they did expose two real sexual assailants,' said Michaelson. `But reprinting unsubstantiated charges against faculty members obviously crosses the line into irresponsible journalism. The paper's editor has displayed gross racial insensitivity.'"

What was happening was clear: the white male patriarchs were allying with the black males against the women's revolution here at NDU. They were also seizing upon The New Dominion's effort to "out" Professor Gibson as an excuse to prevent the publication of future "unwanted" posters and purge the paper's feminist leadership. Thanks to Tricia Raditz, the opportunity provided by racial difference to prevent cross-racial male solidarity had been squandered, at least for now.

How could she have done this? Why hadn't Tricia checked with her first before publishing the graffiti about Gibson? The patriarchy would undoubtedly find a suitably reactionary male to replace her.

The article in the paper then went on to recount the history of the "unwanted" posters, pointing out that they had led to the arrest, and subsequently to the conviction of, two real sexual assailants. But, the article went on to point out, they had led to confusion in other cases.

Morgan then related how the poster reprinting the "Charles Truehart fondled me!" graffiti had been widely interpreted on campus as referring to a student of that name. In fact, though, it had been written about a food service manager who was abusing his female employees. He was later caught doing this on one of the campus police's security cameras. This had been news to Ellen. As usual, the campus police had not bothered to inform her about this but had operated on their own. Ellen wished that she could install security cameras herself in the offices of all male professors, but sufficient progress in the women's revolution had not yet been made to allow this.

It was the next section of the article, though, which had made Ellen angry. "Another `unwanted' poster," the article continued, "reprinted graffiti stating, `Prof. Barnes touched me inappropriately.' A student was identified by an NDU staff member (who insisted on anonymity) as having written the graffiti and filed a complaint against Professor Barnes. When questioned, however, the student told this reporter that she had neither authored the graffiti nor filed any complaint about Professor Barnes."

What the hell was going on here? It was true that Cindy McMann had not written the graffiti; Ellen was well aware of who had done that. But why had she denied filing a complaint against Barnes when she actually had? Ellen had tried to phone her immediately after reading the article the first time, but Cindy’s cell phone was turned off. Ellen had left a message on her voice mail asking her to call back as soon as possible.

It was not difficult for Ellen to figure out who Kate Morgan had learned about Cindy from: Ann Sweezy. Ann hadn't let Ellen or anyone else at NDU (Ann claimed) see it, but she had told her about the paper written by Tiffany Rodriguez. Ellen knew that Ann was capable of showing the paper to the Post reporter in the hopes that it would discredit Barnes. God, what a fool! Ann thought of herself as such a clever little Machiavellian who could manipulate things this way and that for her own advantage. Instead, she'd screwed everything up. Wasn't it obvious to Ann that Kate Morgan would contact Cindy McMann after reading Tiffany's paper? Of course, Ellen thought ruefully, Ann had no way of knowing that Cindy hadn't written that graffiti about Barnes. And neither she nor Ellen would have anticipated that Cindy McMann would deny having filed a complaint against him. Why had Cindy done that? Ellen wished she would hurry up and call.

The article ended with a smug little quote from a male journalism professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. about how reprinting anonymous charges without verifying their accuracy was not only unethical for a newspaper, but also extremely unwise for it if the charges turned out to be false. Ellen suspected that Kate Morgan must have gone to Georgetown and that this guy had been her professor. Didn't people from these elite private universities just love to look down on public schools like NDU? It was this sort of snobbishness, Ellen was sure, that had motivated Kate Morgan to write an article like this which would result in setting back the women's revolution. Ellen could think of no other explanation for Kate being such a traitor to her gender.

Ellen's phone rang and she picked it up immediately. Leticia Cummings, her assistant who worked in the outer office, informed her that Cindy McMann was on the line. Ellen said that she would take the call.

"Hello, Cindy," said Ellen. "Have you seen this morning's Washington Post?"

"I have," said Cindy. She and Tiffany had already had a furious argument about it. "I've actually been meaning to call you for some time now."

"This paragraph about Professor Barnes obviously refers to you," Ellen interrupted. What does this mean that you denied filing a complaint against him? We both know that you did!"

"Well," said Cindy hesitantly, "I've been thinking it over. I may have overreacted to what happened. Besides, it wasn't a formal complaint--just an informal one. And who the hell identified me to the reporter as having both written the graffiti--which I didn't do--and filing a complaint? I thought this kind of thing was supposed to be confidential."

"That I don't know," said Ellen. Technically, this was not a lie: she would not know it was true until Ann Sweezy actually confessed. But Ellen had every intention of pressing her to do so. "It certainly wasn't me. But as far as filing an informal complaint is concerned, remember this: we allow this procedure in cases where victims are too afraid to give their names for fear of retaliation. It is just as serious, if not more so, than the formal process. When you came in here toward the beginning of the semester, I recall you expressing the fear that his touching you with the door to his office closed was a signal that he would only raise your grade in return for sexual favors."

"Well actually," said Cindy a little more brightly, "that fear proved to be unfounded. Since then, I've been doing really well in his class. I'm sure I'll get at least an A- from him. And there's been no hint from him about wanting sex in exchange--even when I've gone back to talk to him in his office."

Ellen instantly recognized that Cindy had disobeyed her instructions about this. "Can't you see through his little game?" she asked. "He must have assumed that you were the one who wrote that graffiti reprinted in the `unwanted poster' about him. It's a quid pro quo situation again. But instead of an A for a lay, he's offering you one just for dropping your complaint against him."

"I resent that!" Cindy responded angrily. "I've earned my grade in that class! And why do you say that I wrote that graffiti? I had just assumed that another student had done that. Has nobody else filed a complaint against Barnes?"

Ellen knew she had to be cautious in how she replied to Cindy. "SASO's files are strictly confidential. So I can't even tell you whether or not anyone else has filed a complaint against Barnes. But if you didn't write that graffiti about Barnes, then it should be clear that he's a serial abuser." Ellen was proud of herself for thinking of this argument so quickly. Like all successful revolutionaries, she could improvise in a crisis. "Do you want him to get away with it?"

"If Barnes ever did touch anybody inappropriately before that `unwanted' poster appeared," said Cindy, "he certainly hasn't afterward. He appears to be scared to death of me and every other woman I know who's gone to see him in his office since then.

"Besides," Cindy continued, "that graffiti about Professor Barnes could have been false or mistaken somehow, just like it was against my boyfriend, Charles Truehart. The article in the paper talked about that. Or maybe someone wrote this graffiti on my behalf, thinking that they were somehow being helpful. It could have been Tiffany. It could have been that strange Professor Sweezy she wrote that paper for. It even could have been you."

This was too close for comfort. "That's libel!" said Ellen coldly. "If you ever repeat what you just said, you're going to face a lawsuit!"

"I'm not accusing anyone in particular," said Cindy. "All I'm saying is that I have no idea who wrote that graffiti or whether it was true or false. I just know that it wasn't me. And I also know that I am withdrawing whatever complaint I filed against Professor Barnes."

"You can't," said Ellen quietly.

"What?" asked Cindy.

"Just what I said: you can't."

"And why not?"

"It is very common both here and at other universities," she informed Cindy, "for victims of sexual assault first to file complaints against their assailants, but later try to withdraw them. Psychologists studying this phenomenon have not reached definitive conclusions about why it occurs. It may be that particularly sensitive individuals--such as women--feel guilty after they complain about their assailants if measures are then taken against them.

"But for whatever reason that victims of sexual assault file complaints and then attempt to withdraw them," continued Ellen, "it is standard procedure for SASO here at NDU and similar offices at other universities to ignore these withdrawal attempts and to act on the original complaints. And as you may know, universities have special status allowing them to establish their own norms as well as to both investigate and punish their violation outside the normal legal process. Although your continued cooperation in this matter is highly desirable, it is by no means essential after your complaint has been filed. The university can proceed against a sexual assailant on the basis of the complaint alone.

"I would have arranged for Barnes to be questioned by the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee before, but I was waiting to see whether he would launch any new assaults on you over the course of the semester. Now that I see he has gotten you to withdraw your complaint against him, we will--with or without your cooperation--initiate proceedings on the basis of your original complaint, which, you may recall was witnessed by Tiffany Rodriguez."

"You can't do this!" shouted Cindy. "I just overreacted earlier this semester. It wasn't my idea to file a complaint against him, it was Tiffany's! I won't let you hurt him!"

"Defending him now, are you?" mocked Ellen. "Let me warn you, Cindy: a professor can be disciplined for making unwanted sexual advances against a student, but a professor and a student who engage in a consensual sexual relationship can both be disciplined."

"How dare you accuse me of having sex with him!" yelled Cindy.

"I'm not accusing you at all," Ellen replied scornfully. "I'm just telling you what can happen if a professor and student engage in consensual sex. But something has just dawned on me: Professor Barnes has no idea that you filed a complaint against him, does he?"

"I...I don't think so," Cindy stammered.

Now I have her, Ellen gloated to herself. "I think I understand the situation, Cindy. You're looking forward to getting an A from him in this class, and maybe in other classes later. Perhaps you're even counting on him to write your letters of recommendation to graduate school, or whatever. Yes, I can see why you might not want to cooperate further in the investigation of the complaint you filed against him before you and he reached this...understanding.

Ellen paused, and then continued icily: "Let me just tell you this: if you do not choose to cooperate with our investigation, that is your privilege. We can proceed without you. But any effort on your part to impede or discredit our investigation may well have the unfortunate consequence of revealing to Professor Barnes that you filed a sexual assault complaint against him. He might not think quite as highly of you then."

"This is blackmail!" shouted Cindy. "I can't believe it! You'd stop at nothing to get your way, wouldn't you?"

"I'd stop at nothing to stamp out sexual assault," replied Ellen. "It's a pity that you seem willing to tolerate it for an A or two and some letters of recommendation.

"Have a nice holiday, Cindy. Don't forget what I told you," said Ellen as she hung up.

The phone on her desk immediately rang. It was Leticia saying that the provost, Jeannette Bobier, had tried to phone her, saying it was urgent that they talk as soon as possible.

Ellen dialed her number immediately and was quickly put through to the provost herself.

"Hello, Ellen. I'm sure you've seen the article about Charles Gibson on the front page of this morning's Post."

"Yes I have, Dr. Bobier." Ellen would never dream of calling the provost by her first name.

"As I'm sure you understand," the provost continued, "this is a public relations disaster. Tell me: has a complaint been filed against Gibson with your office?"

"No, one has not," Ellen admitted. SASO's records were confidential, but since SASO reported to the provost, Ellen had to tell her.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that!" said the provost. "The campus police haven't received a complaint either. Of course, there are so many damn offices where these can be filed; I can't check them all. I want you to let me know right away if you do receive a complaint."

"Of course," responded Ellen.

"Now, I would never presume to tell you how to do your job," said the provost. Ellen understood that this was, in fact, exactly what the provost was about to do. "But this is obviously a delicate case. If there is overwhelming evidence against Gibson, that's one thing. But if it's just an unsubstantiated charge, we can't afford to have this thing played out in the press.

"It's not just that Gibson is likely to sue," the provost continued, "though that by itself would be bad enough. But as you know, we face a difficult situation with our funding from the state legislature. As you know, the Republicans down there are always trying to cut our budget, especially with regard to non-academic services."

Ellen knew what that included: SASO.

"But if the black liberals in both houses turn against us too over this thing, we are sunk," the provost continued. "I don't have to remind you that the conservatives tried to cut out funding altogether for SASO last year. If the black liberals join them because of Gibson, SASO will be history." Along with, of course, Ellen's job.

"You need to handle this very sensitively, Ellen," Bobier continued. "A lot is at stake."

"I understand." Cindy McMann was wrong, thought Ellen. Jeannette Bobier was the real blackmailer here at NDU.

"Good girl, Ellen. And what was this bit about Robert Barnes? Was there, or was there not, a complaint filed against him?"

"There was," said Ellen emphatically.

"They tell me he's going up for tenure," said the provost. "If you have anything, I'm going to need it early next semester before his dossier gets to my desk--if he doesn't withdraw first."

"I'm going to try to arrange a meeting of the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee by the beginning of spring semester."

"All right, Ellen. I know how conscientious you are about these matters."

Almost as soon as this conversation ended, Ellen's phone rang yet again. "There's a student here who wants to file a sexual assault complaint," Leticia informed her.

"Do you think you could get her to come back later?" asked Ellen. "I'm frazzled right now."

"I think you need to see this one right away."

God, what a morning. "All right, send her in."

A few seconds later, a young black woman came into her office holding a copy of today's Washington Post. "My name is Genevieve Lacouture," she said forthrightly. "And I want to file a complaint about Professor Charles Gibson."

Ellen's heart sank. This is just what she and the provost didn't need.

Ellen wondered: did Lenin and the reds ever get the blues?