Guest viewpoint: The hidden harm of required reporting at the university
This piece reflects the views of the author, Jennifer Gómez, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It seems like a simple matter.
An undergraduate student discloses to a university employee, such as a faculty member, that they were the victim of sexual violence or another form of discrimination (e.g., racism). To protect that student and the university community, that faculty member reports all information to the appropriate official university office. In doing so, this student is also connected with campus resources for help.
However, through critical interrogation of the ramifications of this scenario, the problems with a required reporting policy like that being reviewed by the University of Oregon appear: removing autonomy and privacy from adults; silencing reports; infringing upon academic freedom and potentially First Amendment rights; disproportionately affecting minorities, who are subject to both sexual violence victimization and discrimination and potentially violating Title IX federal legislation as it may cause ‘unintended discrimination’ against those most likely to be victims.
The image of victimized students needing to be saved by UO through having their privacy and autonomy removed is a paternalistic stance that infantilizes grown adults.
Experiencing victimization through rape, sexual harassment, being called a slur or the many other injustices that this umbrella policy covers does not render one powerless and mindless. Harmed, yes. Weak, no. Students, who are afforded the right to drive, vote and risk their lives in the military should be able to determine where and to whom their experiences are shared.
Furthermore, the proposed policy does not only affect undergraduates who are victims. It also applies to graduate students — who are often both students and employees — staff, and faculty. Imagine a 50-year-old professor receiving the implicit communication that they do not know what is best for them through having their harmful experience shared without their consent.
If consent is important in sexual relations, with lack of consent indicating assault, then shouldn’t consent in the reporting process also be primary? Why not have a policy that holds employees accountable by requiring that they follow the wishes of the adult who has disclosed to them?
In privileging adults’ basic rights for autonomy and privacy, an uncomfortable question arises: What if, for all its potential for harm, required reporting does create a safer university environment for all by stopping repeat perpetrators?
Unfortunately, required reporting cannot do that if people make no initial disclosures because they know their information will be shared without consent (and 90 percent of survivors of sexual violence do not disclose to any university source at all).
Secondly, UO has demonstrated its incapability to consistently hold perpetrators accountable.
For instance, I was a witness of discrimination at UO. The target of discrimination voluntarily reported to the official university source. I, as a witness, also reported this same event. Following reporting, I received no follow-up. That person still works at UO and is free to continue to perpetrate, despite the case being reported with a corroborating witness. This one example elicits mistrust by highlighting a systemic flaw in the system that should be corrected.
Further inhibiting disclosure is some minorities’ justified mistrust of the UO as a predominantly white university that currently has two buildings named after white supremacists.
That justified mistrust was strengthened for many by the fact that specific concerns for minorities — related to sexual violence and other forms of discrimination — were entirely excluded from the rationale for the UO’s required reporting policy.
The mistrust that some university members have for the UO should be empathized with, respected and addressed in other ways. Mandating trust is impossible; attempting to do so will not work.
Advocates, experts and survivors have spoken out about requiring reporting in this blanket manner, including an anonymous graduate student; UO Organization Against Sexual Assault; Brenda Tracy (nationally recognized advocate against sexual violence on college campuses); BB Beltran, director of Sexual Assault Support Services and Dr. Jennifer Freyd, UO professor and expert on sexual violence.
The issues with requiring reporting are many and varied. Solutions to the complex cultural problems of sexual violence, discrimination and inequality must start with respecting the rights of victims as autonomous adults. If we start there, then our solutions serve to create a better world in which fairness is paramount, differences are respected and discrimination is not re-instantiated.