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April 29, 2004

Seeking Truth About Review’s Allegations

To the editor:

It is not surprising that reports in the Pitt News (“Review: Sex hurts comm. department,” April 15) and elsewhere about the findings of the confidential external review of the Communication department have focused, among all its positive conclusions, on the allegations concerning sexual liaisons between students and faculty and the “unsafe” environment for female students this has created. Such charges concerning sex and power are potent. They can be difficult for those who have been harmed to make when they are true, but difficult also for those who are innocent to refute or to avoid being sullied by when false. Allegations such as those contained in this report are of so serious a nature that one would expect them to be made only on the basis of the most searching and scrupulous inquiry, adhering at the very least to standards of evidence we demand of our students.

The report in question couched its findings in the form of generalizations. It alleges that consensual sexual relationships between senior faculty and students take place on such a “routine,” “repeated,” “accepted” and “usual” basis as to constitute a hostile environment for students. As a result, the report claims, “female students describe the culture as unsafe.” They are required to be alert, mature, and sophisticated in “handling approaches by faculty or coping with hostile acts,” such as pornography left on computers in graduate offices. The report also cites other negative aspects of the faculty culture it describes: “Resistance to diversity generally, and to admitting minority students, are reportedly part of this culture, as is vocal espousal of views against diversity efforts in classes and as members of departmental committees.”

Those of us who work and teach in the department of Communication welcome an inquiry into the truth of these allegations. If such behaviors or attitudes exist, they need to be identified and addressed. If any graduate student has been harmed or disturbed by instances of such a hostile environment, this is unacceptable and calls for immediate redress. Forces resisting diversity efforts in the department must be opposed. But the improprieties alleged by this report are on such a scale, the patterns it purports to describe are so general, that it should be possible to verify if such indeed are the case. If such general patterns exist, then they must be confronted and rooted out. But if in fact there are no such general patterns, then the charges as written are untrue and perhaps the question of the basis on which the external reviewers arrived at such general and sweeping claims should be raised.

Janet Skupien

The author has taught in the communication department for 14 years.

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