Friday, August 27, 2010

Chapter 12

Ann Sweezy came back into Ellen Stenkovsky's office with a cup of coffee in a paper cup. A Styrofoam cup would have been much easier to carry, but that would not have been environmentally correct. Ellen had also returned, as had Elita White--the African-American African-American history professor. Ann was glad she wasn't last. They were just waiting now on Maurice--the contemporary theater professor who was also African-American. Both Ann and Maurice were usually late both to the beginnings and the resumptions of meetings. But while Ann always felt a little guilty about this, Maurice never seemed to notice that he was late. Ann admired his self-confidence.

This was Maurice's first year of his three-year membership on the committee. It was Elita's second year, and Ann's third. The three of them were all tenure track professors, but since Ann had been on the committee the longest, she was the senior faculty member this year and thus officially the chair. Ellen, though, dealt with all the logistics of the committee and, in truth, actually ran it. It was a late January Friday just before the week spring semester classes began.

Ellen seemed preoccupied with paper work while Elita, as usual, had a grim expression on her face which did not invite conversation. Ann, then, silently mused about her own situation while sipping her coffee and waiting for Maurice.

Ann would be sad when her three year term on the committee came to an end with the close of the current academic year. But if she was denied tenure and had both to appeal the decision as well as search for another job next year, she wouldn't have any spare time to devote to the committee anyway. So far, she thought, things were still on track. The vote of the tenured faculty on her case had been thirteen for, two against, and one abstention. This was obviously less favorable than a unanimous vote in her favor, but at least it was the same, she had been told, as Barnes had gotten. In addition, Ruth Silverstein had written a very positive chair's memo for her. She wondered, though, how it compared with the one Silverstein wrote for Barnes.

After the long winter break, both their dossiers now advanced to the promotion and tenure committee of the College of Arts and Sciences--which, Ann understood from her liaison to the committee, would probably meet next Friday, the last day of the first week of classes. Ann was glad that she was a habitual saver and filer. She had recently looked back through her fall semester collection of What's New at NDU, the faculty/staff information newsletter, and saw that Charles Gibson was a member of the college P&T committee. For once, she had succeeded in not revealing this bit of intelligence to anyone else on the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee. With any luck, he would not remember that he had encountered her here when the P&T committee met next week.

The fact that she served on the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee was noted in her dossier. She wondered, though, how thoroughly each P&T committee member could read each of the thick dossiers being considered in addition to the dossier that they each had to become very familiar with when serving as the liaison who presented the case to the committee.

In any event, Ann had not said anything to provoke Gibson this morning. Indeed, she was inclined to side with his version of events. But this was not, she assured herself, because he was on the P&T committee. It had, however, been a grueling morning. But then, the deliberations of the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee always were.

Maurice came into the room with a can of Diet Coke. "I'm not late, am I?" he asked jovially. "Whew! Nobody told me just how intense this committee was going to be! I'm glad we didn't have any more cases to deal with!"

Ellen looked up from her writing. "Okay, let's get started again," she said in a very serious voice. "Let me remind you of the differences between these two cases, and what we're expected to do now.

"The first complaint we heard this morning was a formal complaint lodged by a student, Genevieve Lacouture, against a professor, Charles Gibson. Because it was a formal complaint, the complainant herself was here to state her grievances against Professor Gibson and he had the opportunity to challenge her--which, I am sure you recall, he did."

"Yes, I think we all recall that," interrupted Maurice. "It was quite a shouting match they had!"

"The second complaint we heard," continued Ellen, ignoring the interruption, "was an informal complaint. This procedure is allowed when the complainant does not wish to reveal her name to the accused."

"I really have to admit," commented Maurice, "that I have some problems with that. Doesn't that sort of violate the whole notion of due process? Right to face one's accuser and all that?"

"I realize, Maurice, that this is your first year on the committee," responded Ellen condescendingly. "As I tried to explain to Professor Barnes earlier, universities enjoy special legal status to govern and adjudicate their own internal affairs. Because there are usually no third party witnesses to sexual assault cases, observing the patriarchal legalism requiring the victim of sexual assault to actually prove it occurred places an undue and unfair burden on her. It is the presumption at this and other progressive universities that sexual assault victims do not file complaints frivolously or maliciously. Indeed, there is reason to believe that they usually do not file complaints at all. When they do, then, they must be taken seriously. The fact that the complaint is an informal one does not detract from the seriousness of the charge. An informal complaint places even more of a burden on the committee than a formal one to question the accused on behalf of a victim fearing retaliation.

"It is now our responsibility," Ellen continued, "to reflect on each case and to draft a memo to the Provost stating our findings. Let's start with the Gibson case since we heard that one first. Since you're the chair, Ann, would you like to begin?"

After expressing what Ann felt was a sufficient number of self-deprecating remarks proclaiming that being chair shouldn't entitle her to speak first and that she wanted to hear the views of her colleagues, she noted that Ellen really ran the committee anyway so she may as well speak first after all. She also noted that her two previous years on the committee might have given her some additional experience to put this particular case in perspective. After all this, Ann paused. "It's difficult to know what to say about this particular case. I must confess that it's very unusual for me to see two people of color so adamantly opposed to each other."

"Not for me!" said Maurice. "I see it all the time! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

A hissing noise appeared to issue from Elita.

Maurice may be both African-American and gay, thought Ann, but he still had what she considered to be some annoyingly male characteristics. She wondered if he was part white. "It seems to me," Ann continued, "that while Professor Gibson did say something a little...untoward...and that the student understandably felt...offended, it appears to me that she just may have overreacted somewhat. And I do think Professor Gibson made a strong case that her charge against him was being manipulated by racist elements to attack not just him but all African-American professors."

"Oh, come on!" said Maurice. "He's just trying to hide behind the fact that he's black. He didn't deny telling Genevieve that if she wanted a higher grade, she should wear a shorter skirt. In fact, he admitted saying it when he claimed it was just a joke."

Elita hissed again. "This case should never have been brought before this committee," she pronounced. "It should have been dealt with quietly by the Minority Affairs Office."

"And why's that?" asked Maurice. "Just because the two parties involved are African-American? Whether the charge is valid or not, it is about sexual assault, not racial discrimination."

Continuing not to look at Maurice, Elita stated tersely, "This is a case that should be dealt with inside the African-American community. It should never have been aired to outsiders who want to use it both to discredit and divide African-Americans. This Lacouture girl can never be forgiven for writing graffiti about Brother Gibson in a woman's bathroom knowing full well that white racists would publish it in the student paper! She even admitted that she did it! I just wonder what she was offered to betray her own kind."

"Oh, come on, Elita!" responded Maurice. "Genevieve just complained about Gibson the same way a lot of other young women complained about their sexual assailants here. There was no great white conspiracy to find this girl and pay her to write something false about Gibson."

Elita, again refusing to look at Maurice, hissed again. "I don't know that that is what happened," she said, "but you don't know that it didn't!"

"From what Genevieve told me," Ellen interjected, "she did go first with her complaint to the Minority Affairs Office. But once they realized who she was complaining about, they threw her out..."

"Just what they should have done," muttered Elita.

"...and so she came here," continued Ellen. "As we all know, there are a number of offices on campus that can take complaints about sexual assault. I, of course, would prefer that they all come here, but the way it works is that whatever office gets it has the responsibility to investigate. Whatever this or any other office receiving such a complaint decides, though, all report to the provost who then makes the final determination about guilt as well as disciplinary action. Were you going to say anything more, Ann?"

"Well," she began slowly, taken slightly by surprise at this sudden opportunity to try once again to reassert control over the conversation, "I think really what we have here is a case of... miscommunication. Professor Gibson made a joke, the student thought he was serious and reacted accordingly. I just think Genevieve misunderstood his meaning."

"Au contraire!" said Maurice, "I think she understood his meaning all too well!"

"Nobody who is not an African-American can possibly judge whether or not two African-Americans did or did not understand each other," pronounced Elita.

Ann knew this was a jab at her. She was mystified. Wasn't it obvious that Ann and Elita had expressed similar views on this case, and so should be allies? Ann had tried repeatedly to befriend her when Elita first came on to the committee last year, but all her attempts were rebuffed. Elita seemed to regard all whites as enemies. Didn't she understand that Ann was a liberal and a progressive who consistently supported and spoke out for the rights of people of color? Why didn't Elita appreciate this?

"On the other hand," Elita continued, "nobody who isn't female can tell whether or not another female is being honest when she claims she's been sexually assaulted. It's obvious to me that this Genevieve is just a little black rich bitch who’s turned her back on her own."

"That's pretty strong stuff, Elita," commented Maurice. "Would you care to explain how you arrived at that conclusion?”

Elita appeared to be profoundly affronted. Still not looking at Maurice but with an obvious effort to keep her voice under control, she replied, "It's perfectly obvious. There's no need for further explanation."

"Perhaps this would be an appropriate time," intervened Ellen, "to take a vote to see if there is a majority on the committee which would recommend disciplinary action against Professor Gibson to the provost. Would anyone approve such a step?"

Only Maurice raised his hand.

"Would anyone oppose this?" Ellen asked.

Both Ann and Elita raised their hands.

"Aren't you voting?" Maurice asked Ellen.

"I don't vote in cases involving faculty members," Ellen responded. "But it is clear that the majority of the faculty on the committee is not willing to recommend disciplinary action in this case. Unless anyone wishes to change her--or his--mind, I will record this as your decision and advise the provost accordingly."

Maurice seemed about to say something, but then just shook his head. "If there's nothing further to say on this matter," Ellen continued, "then I propose we turn to the case of Professor Barnes. Let's start with you, Ann."

After once again going through the obligatory self-deprecation, Ann said, "I think this is a much more serious case. I also think that the negative attitude Barnes displayed here this morning is symptomatic of his arrogance. After all, if that is how he treats other professors, imagine how he must treat his students!"

Barnes had come in with the now famous Washington Post article by Kate Morgan stating that the student identified by a member of the staff as having filed a complaint against him denied it (Ann knew that Ellen was still angry with her for talking to Kate about this). Ellen countered by saying that, on the contrary, a student had come to her with an informal complaint about him, and that there was even a witness--the student's roommate.

Barnes had then demanded to know who had filed the complaint. Ellen refused to tell him, stating that the informal complaint process existed for those occasions when a complainant felt "uncomfortable" about revealing her name--possibly, Ellen had pointedly stated, due to fear of retaliation. Barnes then had the effrontery to state that he was being denied due process and that this committee amounted to nothing more than a kangaroo court. He said that he had consulted with an attorney, and that if any action was taken against him on the basis of an anonymous accusation, which he had good reason to believe had either never been filed or had been withdrawn, then he intended to file suit against both the university and each member of the committee individually.

Ellen then explained (rather helpfully, Ann thought) that universities enjoyed a special legal status enabling them to govern and adjudicate their own internal affairs, and that due to sexual assault being an un-witnessed crime, "progressive" universities had abandoned the anachronistic legalism requiring a victim to prove that it had occurred.

Ellen next asked Barnes whether he had ever touched a student "inappropriately" or spoken to any in his office with the door closed. He categorically denied having done the former and stated that he certainly had not done the latter since the publication of what he termed "that damned `unwanted' poster." Whether a student had been in his office with the door closed prior to that occasion he claimed not to remember. Nobody else having any questions for him (actually, Ann did have questions she wanted to pose, but Barnes's demeanor intimidated her--a sure sign of his guilt as far as she was concerned), Ellen declared that the hearing was over. Barnes reiterated his warning about filing suit and then left.

What had upset Ann more than anything else was that Barnes didn't even seem to recognize her. It is true that they didn't have much opportunity to interact as she taught on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule while he taught on the more desirable Tuesday, Thursday schedule. And, as she well knew, he had been away last year. But surely these were not adequate excuses! They had attended some of the same department meetings--though he had not come to all of them the way she had (Ann wondered whether Ruth had taken adequate note of this).

"Well," said Ann, "given the belligerent way in which he addressed the members of this committee, and from what I've seen of his arrogant behavior in our department, I see no reason to doubt the allegations made against him in the informal complaint. Indeed, I can well understand why the student in question would be too intimidated to file a formal complaint in which she would have had to face him."

"Point of order!" said Maurice. "Don't you have something of a conflict of interests here, Ann, in that you’re passing judgment on someone in your own department?"

"We're both tenure track," Ann replied. "He has no say over my future, and I have no say over his--at least within the department. It would be different if one of us had tenure and the other didn't."

Ann was glad that Maurice didn't have any objection to this reasoning. But she was not happy to hear him say, "I have to admit, I sympathize with Barnes. If I first read an anonymous accusation in the student paper that I had inappropriately touched someone (whatever that means!), then read in the Washington Post (no less!) that the student who someone on the staff says filed a complaint against me denies having done so, and then I'm called in to answer questions about a charge that I was led to believe was either never filed or withdrawn, and I couldn't find out who made it, I'd be pretty mad too! In fact, I'd have been a lot more belligerent than Barnes was here!"

"Oh, Maurice! Ellen has already explained how the process works," Ann said with exasperation. "What do you think, Elita?"

"I have no opinion on this case," said Elita perfunctorily.

Now Ann was really upset. She needed at least one person to side with her against Barnes in order for the committee to recommend disciplinary action to the provost.

Ann anguished over how difficult Elita was being. What was wrong with her? Ann had sided with Elita on Gibson. The least Elita could do was to side with Ann about Barnes, she thought.

Ann was desperate. "Did the student who filed the informal complaint against Barnes actually withdraw it?" Ann asked.

The look on Ellen's face immediately told Ann that she had asked the wrong question. She should have coordinated with Ellen on this in advance.

Ellen explained how in fact the complainant had asked to withdraw her complaint, how this occurred frequently in sexual assault cases, and how this and other "progressive" universities ignored these requests and proceeded on the basis of the original complaint. She also expressed her private view that the complainant's near hysteria about Professor Barnes facing negative consequences after being told she could not withdraw her complaint "suggested" to Ellen that an "inappropriate" relationship had developed between them.

Maurice shook his head. "If the complainant has withdrawn her complaint, then I see no reason for us to press it. This is ridiculous!"

Ellen informed him that consensual sex between a professor and student was considered to be just as "offensive" as sexual assault given the favoritism that would naturally arise from such a "conflict of interests."

"I'm sorry," said Maurice, "but there's no case here."

Elita said nothing. "Would you be convinced of the seriousness of the charge against Barnes if further evidence were available?" asked Ellen.

"What evidence?" asked Maurice.

Ann had been dreading this. Ellen had been furious with Ann over showing Tiffany's paper identifying Cindy McMann as the complainant against Rob Barnes to that Post reporter, which led to the fiasco of Cindy denying to Kate that she had filed a complaint against him. Ellen had demanded that Ann present Tiffany's paper (which Ann had, characteristically, told Ellen about), but Ann did not want to do this for fear of it becoming known and finding its way to Barnes. Ellen had accused Ann of talking about the paper so much that Barnes was bound to hear about it, though he had not mentioned anything earlier today. As a peace offering, Ann suggested that the committee not be informed about the paper unless it looked like Barnes would get off, in which case Ann would produce it--which she now did.

After explaining what the document was and how she came by it, both Maurice and Elita read through it quickly (something professors are practiced at doing with student papers). Written by Tiffany when Cindy's complaints against Professor Barnes were quite fresh, the paper made dramatic reading. Maurice, though, was still not convinced that any action should be taken against Barnes. But that didn't matter since Elita was.

"He's obviously insensitive," she pronounced. "He clearly needs some sensitivity training." Ann, Elita, and Ellen all agreed that this was what the committee's memo to the provost should recommend. Although registering his dissent, Maurice did not do so strenuously: recommending sensitivity training did not seem like such a terrible thing anyway. He did not realize, Ann knew and congratulated herself heartily for not revealing, that Barnes was going up for tenure and that the provost would see the committee's memo on this sexual assault matter well before she made her decision on that.

Ann detected a feeling of relief pervade the room as everyone got ready to leave. In that Ann and Elita had ended up being on the same side in both cases after all, and that together they had prevailed, Ann thought that Elita might finally be receptive to a friendly overture from her.

As Maurice and Ellen talked together, Ann went over to Elita and asked, "So tell me: are you working on anything special this year?"

Without looking directly at her, Elita stated simply, "I'm going up for tenure." And then, without asking anything of Ann in return, she picked up her things and left the room.

Her friendly overture had failed. But Ann now had a clearer understanding of why Elita had voted the way she had on the Gibson case.