Let me tell you the story about the Director of Residence Life that mysteriously disappeared while I was in undergrad.
When I was a student pursuing my bachelors’ degree, I, like many other women each day in this country, was sexually harassed. I, like many other women, faced an uphill battle in trying to report it. Let me tell you the story:
I was very active in student government while I was an undergraduate student, so it was natural for me to volunteer to help out at the commencement ceremony. I had a couple of friends graduating so I thought it would be a good opportunity to lend a hand, and guarantee myself a ticket to the ceremony. While I was volunteering, I was assigned to help seat people in a certain area. I was told not to worry because John Doe (pretty safe pseudonym, eh?), the Director of Residence Life, would be there to assist me. I had maybe 5 minutes of total interaction with John Doe and then went to another area to assist. I looked down at my cell phone and noticed that John Doe had requested to follow me on Twitter, which I thought was pretty weird because I don’t even think I told him my first and last name. I didn’t accept this request right away because I thought it was kind of strange but, after mulling it over for a little while, I accepted it thinking it was harmless.
Wasting no time, John Doe sent me a direct message (DM) on Twitter. I don’t recall exactly what John Doe said but he started conversation with me about graduation. The conversation was normal and seemed harmless so I engaged in it. I carried on with my life and didn’t think anything of this but did notice that John Doe was “liking” a lot of my Tweets. And the DM’s continued.
Like most predators, John Doe was savvy. The DM’s were harmless conversations about things like baseball. They were never inappropriate, albeit weird, but never inappropriate. John Doe eventually asked me what my phone number was and gave some type of reasoning why he wanted it, which I somehow fell for, still believing this was all harmless.
While at a national conference for Residence Life professionals, John Doe took the opportunity to send me selfies and ask my opinion about his matching and tie/shirt combinations. This was extremely weird, especially considering the fact that this man was in his 50s and I was a 21-year-old student at the University he was a high-ranking member of administration at. I cannot explain why I did not stop communication with him at this point. I think I still believed this was harmless, though I cannot explain why I didn’t catch on to where this was heading.
Recently, an inmate told me about an adage, “befriend then betray,” that inmates use to turn staff and have them engage in illegal activities. I consider myself to have reasonable common sense, though I did not recognize that, at the time, “befriend then betray” was exactly what was happening to me, though in a very different sense.
While at the same national conference, John Doe began the process of “betrayal,” in that he began the process of sexual harassment. I started receiving messages and pictures that were sexual in nature and had no idea what to do. I often turned the conversation back to something safe like baseball, or ignored them all together. Summer was coming to a close and the semester was about to start back up again, my senior year, nonetheless. Making everything even more interesting, John Doe admitted to me that he was forced to resign from a college he previously worked at because they “didn’t like things” he “was doing.” He admitted he agreed to a severance package that had a confidentiality agreement attached to it.
I eventually told off John Doe after receiving far too many creepy messages but still found myself at odds with what to do. I felt like I was complicit in what happened, even though I did not want this to happen to me in any way, shape, or form. I did what many other women do when they experience this type of thing – I engaged in victim blaming: I blamed myself.
The semester started and I felt extremely uncomfortable on campus. This was a college of 5,000 people, it wasn’t exactly easy to hide. So, I texted a good friend of mine that had recently graduated and explained to her the entire situation. Then I asked what to do. She suggested that I report it and named a couple of campus administrators that she believed would be a good outlet. I ended up emailing someone from Judicial Affairs, knowing full and well that this was not the correct person to reach out to.
I met with Judicial Affairs and, after picking her jaw up off of the floor, it was explained to me that I needed to talk to someone higher up the chain. This was such an obvious issue that someone higher up the chain was called into the room immediately. I again explained what was going on and was told they would take this issue even further up the chain and to Human Resources and I would be contacted with next steps.
After meeting with HR, an investigation began. Though, it was explained to me that because I was not a subordinate of the Director of Residence Life, this was technically not a sexual harassment issue under the University’s policy. It was an issue of consensual relationships, though this was not a relationship and it was not consensual. I was informed that unless someone who was a subordinate of John Doe came forward, there was not much the University could do.
Obviously, I was not settling for this, as I had already put myself out there and through embarrassment with University administrators. So, being the active student in student government that I was, I reached out. I talked to fellow students that were employees in Residence Life and they reached out to other students and eventually at least 3 students who were somehow employed by Residence Life came forward and had very similar stories. Though I never met any of these women personally, I think they were incredibly brave. One of the stories I heard through the grapevine was that one of the women received text messages from John Doe with things like, “I’m outside of your dorm room. I can see you.” Another report was that John Doe would often be seen walking through women’s dorm buildings with no apparent reason. These stories made me all the more glad I came forward.
I was asked by HR if I feared for my safety on campus and, though I didn’t, I was extremely uncomfortable. They designated John Doe as “persona non grata,” Latin for “person not welcome” on campus while the investigation carried on. It was towards the end of the semester when I was informed by HR that they could not comment on personnel issues but John Doe would not be coming back to campus. I was left under the impression that John Doe reached a settlement for resignation with my University. And then it was brushed under the rug. The only further mention of it was by the school newspaper and an article pondering where the Director of Residence Life has mysteriously went and why the University would not explain. There never was an explanation, there was just more of “the University will not comment on personnel issues.”
Interesting enough, while this was all ongoing, the University sent out an email stating that they were revising their sexual harassment policy and welcomed feedback from students. I never found out if it changed at all. It didn’t really matter. My University did what many universities across the country do – they hide what isn’t comfortable. It doesn’t help admissions if it hits the news that an administrator was fired for sexually harassing students. So, universities pretend it doesn’t happen. They cover up whatever doesn’t look good for them.
I still don’t know if the University changed its sexual harassment policy but I did encounter something interesting a couple of years ago: I was getting ready to run a marathon in a city 40 minutes away from where my former University was and I ran into a former professor. He was there with a girl who appeared to be college-aged. They were holding hands and caressing each other. I said hi to him and laughed to myself. A 50-something year old professor in a relationship with a student. The University’s consensual relationship policy would support that – though anyone with a clear conscience would recognize that was a man in power using his position for his own gain. A tradition at colleges across this nation, and surely at the one I attended for undergrad.