Thursday, November 26, 2020

Alleged sexual harassment of professor discussed by ASMSU

December 3, 2018
From left to right, ASMSU President Katherine “Cookie” Rifiotis, Vice President for Academic Affairs Dylan Westrin and Vice President for Finance and Operations Dan Iancio listen during the General Assembly Meeting at the International Center on Sept. 20, 2018. Rifiotis is the spokesperson for MSU’s undergraduate students.
From left to right, ASMSU President Katherine “Cookie” Rifiotis, Vice President for Academic Affairs Dylan Westrin and Vice President for Finance and Operations Dan Iancio listen during the General Assembly Meeting at the International Center on Sept. 20, 2018. Rifiotis is the spokesperson for MSU’s undergraduate students. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

James Madison and Lyman Briggs professor Joy Rankin published a long essay Nov. 28 detailing the sexual harassment she allegedly suffered at the hands of an unnamed associate dean. Her essay was the main topic of conversation during the following evening’s meeting of the Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU. 

ASMSU originally included the name of an associate dean they said is the alleged harasser in Rankin's essay. However, due to a lack of confirmation The State News will not name the accused.

A resolution was written and introduced on Thursday in the academic committee, an uncommon occurrence (bills and resolutions are usually submitted by Tuesday at the latest for Thursday night meetings). The resolution called both for a full investigation into the possible sexual misconduct perpetrated by people in power on tenure-track female faculty as well as stating unequivocal support for Rankin.

The resolution was tabled after a discussion that lasted more than an hour. There were a myriad of issues and concerns raised by members of the committee (and members of the other committees who came into the room after theirs had finished) concerning the resolution, ranging from the practical sphere of separating the two goals to some who disagreed philosophically with taking a side on the issue.

Among those who spoke out against including a clause stating full belief and support for Rankin was sophomore Business College Representative Olivia Long. She noted that an Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE, investigation in 2017 cleared the accused of any wrongdoing, something Rankin addressed in her essay.

“The (resolution) did seem like ... it was taking a side in an OIE investigation that had already been concluded, and although I will never deny or say that I don't stand with survivors because 100 percent I do, but I can’t say in this case that I know for sure what happened, and nobody can say that,” Long said. “I don’t feel comfortable denouncing somebody that I’ve never met, don’t know, whose name has been cleared, and I wasn’t there to see what happened.”

Now, the resolution goes to the Office of Academic Affairs, headed by political theory and constitutional democracy senior Dylan Westrin, who will help draft the resolution along with the original authors. The plan is to introduce the updated resolution at the General Assembly meeting Dec. 6.

The great likelihood is that the resolution will be divided into two parts: a bill that calls for Westrin’s office to conduct an investigation into cases like Rankin’s, which he says will start with a call to OIE, and a resolution concerning ASMSU’s stance on Rankin and survivors in general. A resolution is a statement ASMSU is making, by taking a stance on an issue, such as the Rankin case. A bill, by contrast, empowers an office within ASMSU, in this case, Academic Affairs, to begin using its resources to either investigate, advocate, or otherwise affect things. 

“We want to look at the broad relationship between ... the worker and the boss,” Westrin said, of the investigation he hopes the revised bill will allow to take place. “We’re specifically looking to explore the relationship between a tenure-tracked female professor and the administration in the colleges. 

"It’s the before, during and after of trying to get direct research ... of what the culture is. We always talk about ‘there’s a culture of sexual assault on campus,’ let’s add more to those numbers.”

The bill figures to pass without incident — it is doubtful any member of ASMSU would speak out against an investigation being done. The resolution taking an official stance against the accused, and OIE by extension, could be a different story.  

“I think the idea that an OIE investigation cleared someone — it’s MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity, it doesn’t have the greatest track record,” said Colin Wiebrecht, a senior representative of the Alliance of Queer and Allied Students, and the original seconder of the resolution. “There’s more here underneath the surface, and it’s almost like ... a cancer that’s infected. I don’t want to talk about my university that way, but I keep finding out more and more every day, it’s something else that comes out. I think we really need to decide whether or not we’re going to realize that and call it out for what it is.”

One obstacle the updated resolution may face is that most members of the general assembly don’t know either professor and feel taking a side would be an emotional reaction to a nuanced topic.

“I feel like I come from a unique perspective of being able to be objective about it,” Long said. “A lot of people do have personal relationships with the professors, or do have experiences with sexual assault. I felt like I was able to bring a more objective view to what was going on.”

Westrin at one point during the discussions tried to get something passed through that night, so as to allow the investigation to begin as soon as possible, but squabbling over issues such as grammar held it up from passing through the academic committee in any form. He told The State News of his frustrations after the meeting had concluded.

“We got hampered in small specifics on the bill that we talked around, we never jumped into it,” Westrin said. “We never said, ‘OK, this clause needs to be cut immediately.’ But instead, we say ‘I think this clause promotes some difficulty.’ Then with that, someone would yield, we’d move on to the next person, the discussion would keep going, there was never action. 

"That’s why I said I’d like to see this turned into something. If that means it comes back to my office with the authors of the bill to write it and then bring it back as a bill or a resolution next week to empower this office to do exactly that, then so be it.”

Though the updated resolution may be a long shot to pass through the General Assembly, Wiebrecht is committed to making it happen.

“I would like to pass a resolution that says we believe survivors, because we need to demonstrate as ASMSU that we’re standing with survivors given everything that’s happened,” he said. “I think this idea that we only believe survivors in certain cases or we pick and choose when to believe or what to believe, that is something that I just don’t buy into.”

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