Letter from the Editor: UP's sexist culture starts and ends at the top

An analysis in the aftermath of the Wallys

By Rachel Rippetoe | May 3, 2018 8:53am
Rachel Rippetoe is the 2017-2018 editor in chief of The Beacon.
Media Credit: Julia Cramer / The Beacon

University of Portland President Fr. Mark Poorman wrote a good second apology. I sat on the opposite side of the room as he read it aloud at the April 17 Academic Senate meeting in Franz Hall.

It did all the good things apologies should do. It took the blame, admitted that there is still more learning to do, admitted that there is a problem, and it should have been acknowledged sooner. 

But soon after, University Provost Thomas Greene made sure all those good things meant nothing. 

The room had just been buzzing with concerned professors, asking questions about how to make their students better, how to have conversations in class about rape culture and consent. Students spend four years at this university; how could they not be changed for the better? How did we fail at instilling the values of equality and respect? How could our leaders set an example by sitting idly by as a student vulgarly made women the punchline? 

Poorman listened, and he answered. I thought in that moment that maybe this event and the uproar that followed could finally make the change that UP needed. 

But then Greene spoke. He said after the difficult conversation, it was time to bring up some good news. Except it wasn’t news. And it wasn’t good. It was a logical fallacy that insulted the intelligence of everyone in the room.

He said, of all the employees who work in this administration, isn’t it wonderful to know that over 50 percent are women? 

This is what he meant: Isn’t it wonderful to know that actually, despite what you’ve heard, the University of Portland does not have a problem with institutional sexism?

In the aftermath of The Wallys, I spent two weeks reporting. I talked to coaches and athletes and administrators. As I filed through the details of what happened that Sunday night, how students felt about it and how Athletics was responding, I realized it all felt too small.

Because as much as I wanted to write about what Goutham Sundaram said, and how it made students feel, all I could bring myself to care about was Greene’s insidious remark. “Over 50 percent!”        

I realized two things as I sweated over my interviews with athletes and coaches, struggling to put into words the culture they described, the culture we all know exists. One, the root of this culture doesn’t start with Athletics. Two, numbers speak louder than anything else. Numbers tell the truth. So let’s talk about the 50 percent.

(Remember, Dr. Greene, you brought it up.) 

Maybe of all the employees who work in Waldschmidt, all the administrative assistants and lower-level, hourly employees who work in the Registrar’s office or Financial Aid, 50 percent really are women. But here are the numbers Greene conveniently left out. 

One hundred percent of the top jobs at this University are filled by white men: the president, all of the vice presidents and the provost. Two out of the five vice presidents, along with Poorman are Holy Cross priests. 

The University’s Board of Regents fairs no better. Of the 49 regents, 11 are women, and 10 of the men are priests. 

So out of a total of 56 top decision makers at this university, 11 women have a seat at the table.  That’s about 20 percent, not 50. 

There are three women in the “President’s Leadership Cabinet”:  Associate Provost Lauretta Frederking (she recently accepted a position at another university), Human Resources Director Sandy Chung, and General Counsel & Special Assistant to the President Andrea Barton. But none of these women has a top role at the University, and none is ranked among the highest compensated employees. 

In fact, of the 19 top earners in 2015 (the last year for which salary data is available), only three were women. And one of them, Vice President for University Relations Laurie Kelley, was replaced by a man. 

Yep, that’s right. Female representation in the top positions has actually gotten worse since Poorman became president four years ago. When Kelley left in 2015 to become President & Chief Development Officer of Providence Foundations, Poorman could have hired another woman, but instead he promoted former Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Gerry Olinger. 

He could have hired a woman to fill Olinger’s position, but instead he promoted then Associate Vice President for Student Development Fr. John Donato. During that spring, The Beacon implored Poorman to bring diversity to the administration and at least hire a woman or, better yet, a woman of color for the Associate V.P. position. He didn’t. 

At the end of the day, facts are facts. Poorman hires white men, preferably priests. 

It begs the question: Are these really the most qualified people for the highest management positions at this university?  

Right now, there are about 1,200 Holy Cross priests and brothers throughout the world. That is an awfully small applicant pool. And seeing that women are excluded from priesthood, if hiring a priest is a priority, hiring a woman is not.  

It should be disconcerting to know that our university will never appoint a woman as president. What does that say to the 60 percent of our student body who happen to be female?

So what does any of this mean in context? What does it mean that all the major decisions for our university are made by white men? It means that the speech at the Wallys was not a blip or an outlier. 

It means that when Poorman sat and did nothing as a student made women feel unsafe, it felt reminiscent of the lack of effort and the ignorance towards sexual violence that Poorman has perpetuated during his presidency. The inaction was not an isolated incident, it reflects what Poorman values as a president. He has perpetuated a cycle of silence because when women don’t have a voice in the process, it’s easy for our administration to be bystanders, just like Poorman was that night. 

If you look at the rage towards Poorman’s inaction during the Wallys and see it as overblown, or simply reactionary to one event, you’re missing the point. I have been a student journalist here for four years. And I have listened to sources, on the verge of tears, tell me all of the ways that they have been belittled and ignored trying to feel safe at their own university. I’ve heard about the emails that never got a response, and the condescending questions like, “What were you wearing that night? How much were you drinking?” 

I can imagine that the women who have been through our student conduct process or Title IX process attempting to report a sexual assault probably read Olivia Sanchez’s article and felt a familiar lurch in their throat, thinking about Poorman staying seated, staring straight ahead as another man at this university made women feel unwelcome and objectified. 

Goutham Sundaram may have been the person up on stage telling problematic jokes, but what is much more disturbing to me is an institutional culture that led Poorman to believe at some level that Goutham’s comments weren’t that big of a deal. This was never about Goutham. And if we continue to make it about him, just as Poorman did in his first apology, we are letting this administration off the hook.

The truth is that the leaders of our campus exist in an all-white, all-male fraternity, isolated from other perspectives. Thus, even actions with good intentions can fall flat and feel tone deaf to the concerns and challenges of women. Having multiple women and people of color in the leadership team, sitting at the table unafraid of challenging notions and perspectives is so important. And I pointed out Poorman’s hiring practices earlier to emphasize that Poorman has an option to include these voices and he chooses not to. He chooses to keep the fraternity in place. Not all Catholic Universities are run like this. Twenty percent of our sister school Notre Dame’s vice presidents are women. It’s not great, but it’s better than what we have. 

In interviews, I talked to a lot of athletes about echo chambers, about what happens in a locker room when all of your buddies make the same jokes about women. I talked to a male cross-country runner, who practices closely with the women’s team, and he said he would never talk about women the way Sundaram did, largely because many of the women he lives with, works out with and goes to meets with, were in that room. 

This is what representation means for a culture. This sophomore cross-country runner didn’t think the jokes were funny, because the jokes were directed at his peers. 

Echo chambers in locker rooms can reinforce rape culture and sexism on a lower level. Imagine what an echo chamber filled with all white men right at the top of a hierarchical system could do. That’s a powerful echo chamber. 

What baffles me most are the emails, the emails forwarded to students that at least 10 people must have looked over before hitting send. For instance, Donato’s response to an article The Beacon wrote about a student who felt her sexual assault case was mishandled. Or Poorman’s first apology

Both were cold and lacked empathy. They talked about process, because this administration loves to talk about process. But they gave no acknowledgement to the women who have been hurt — this time, publicly ignoring their pain. When I read these emails, I always wonder if there was a woman in the room when they were written. But I can easily answer this for myself: If there was, she didn’t have power to speak up, because there are no women with power equal to the top men at this university. That is the indisputable truth. 

Maybe a woman helped Poorman write his second apology. It sure seems like it. But I don’t believe those words. I don’t believe that he’s working towards change.   I don’t believe him when he stands in front of a room full of professors and says “I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m changing.” What I see is a man who is constantly looking to shape perception, not make change. 

This was all the more evident when I asked a question during the Academic Senate meeting. Most of the room was made up of professors, so a big topic of discussion was, “How do we teach students to be above rape culture? How do educators shape that culture?” But the event happened in Athletics, so I asked, “How can coaches train students to be better? How can we change that culture in a locker room?”

Poorman’s response was indicative of an institutional problem. “We already do.” 

I walked out of the room that day assuming from his response that athletes get some kind of special Green Dot or bystander intervention training. They do not. I spoke with multiple athletes just a few hours afterwards, and every one of them told me the same thing. Freshmen athletes have the opportunity, like everyone else, to attend a Green Dot training during orientation week (which is not mandatory, by the way. Somehow that aspect of the event never comes up when Poorman and others talk about it).  And then, once a year, Frederking comes to each team and explains the Title IX process. While this is useful and extremely important, it is not bystander intervention training. It is not a discussion about consent.

Maybe Poorman genuinely didn’t know this, but that should be even more concerning. When you hire a cabinet of people who look just like you, who have been brought through the ranks by your hand, and thus are loyal to you, they’re going to tell you want you want to hear, not what you need to hear. Poorman needs people to tell him the truth. 

“We already do.” “Over 50 percent!” Neither are outright lies. But they should make you question whether the leaders of this campus really care about addressing the problems we are facing, as the first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one. 

And although on script, Poorman eloquently acknowledged this problem, his administration is constantly looking for a way to discredit it. 

Poorman preaches inclusion while only hiring white men to top positions. He says he’s sorry for the Wallys, but he is defensive and silencing to critique. And just in case you were wondering, he never sent an apology Olivia’s way. 

Most editor in chiefs write a goodbye column at the end of the year. So I guess you can consider this my final love letter to UP. Because I do love this university. I love the people within it. The faculty and staff and fellow students who have supported me and made me a better, tougher human being. I’ve loved my experience at this school, and I have loved serving you all on The Beacon these past four years. 

But when you love something, you want to make it better. This University does have a sexism problem. It does have a rape culture problem that shouldn’t be blamed on any one person. As president Poorman needs to be held accountable, but it’s not just him. The problem is systemic. 

And although I will be long gone from here come next week, I hope that the rest of you can see beyond the optics, and demand real change.  Our president and our provost’s need to shape the perception of the problem should tell you how interested they are in making UP better. 

And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite Maya Angelou quote: “When someone shows you who they really are, believe them the first time.” 

Rachel Rippetoe is the 2017-2018 editor in chief of The Beacon. You can contact her at rippetoe18@up.edu.