Opinion: A Call for Institutional Reform

Reflections from SASA and ASUP Leaders

By Sitara Nath , Michael Gallagher , Shelby Gavigan and Emma Covert | April 26, 2019 5:23pm
Emma Covert, Shelby Gavigan, Sitara Nath and Michael Gallagher shares the work they have been doing this year with the UP community.

This year, the four of us have served as co-presidents of Students Against Sexual Assault as well as your Student Body President and Vice President. In these positions, we have been privileged to see advocates at the frontlines of important issues on campus – equity, inclusion, sexual assault prevention, mental health, and so much more. As we leave UP, however, we want to share our stories of student advocacy with the community in the hope that more of us will critically engage with this institution and recognize areas where change is necessary. We write this article because we believe the community we love deserves to know what kinds of conversations and initiatives are happening behind the scenes and we strongly believe that we are all entitled to transparency and openness.  

Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA): Shelby and Emma 

** The following section details our experiences with sexual violence advocacy on this campus. We are aware of the sensitive nature of this subject and recognize that this may be activating for many readers. Please take that into consideration as you continue through this section of the article.**

The reason we, Shelby and Emma (co-presidents of SASA) are writing is to urge members of the UP community to take a very sober look at the systems we have in place and critically examine what can be done to make our campus a safer, more welcoming and more inclusive place. While we have had many positive and hopeful collaborations with key administrators, we have also felt deeply frustrated and angered by the lack of meaningful progress. 

Confidential Advocates/Resources:

The first thing we feel it is imperative to problematize is the lack of confidential resources at the University of Portland. Currently, the only individuals who are not ‘responsible employees’ or ‘mandatory reporters’ are Holy Cross priests, Campus Ministry staff and Health and Counseling Center (HCC) staff. Throughout our four years here, several survivors have told us that these resources are not adequate. Many survivors feel understandably uncomfortable disclosing a sexual assault to a priest or individual affiliated with a religious institution for various reasons, some of which include not belonging to the Catholic Church, female survivors feeling uncomfortable disclosing to male priests, and the university's stance on pre-marital sex.  

At various points throughout this academic year, survivors, along with students struggling with various other crises or issues, have been put on two- to three-week waitlists to get a counseling appointment at the HCC. Unfortunately, the HCC simply doesn’t have enough hours or staff to accommodate all the students at the university who need services. Offering Protocol—a crisis phone line—as the only afterhours resource available to students who are struggling is not enough. There is a dire need for more expansive resources for survivors of sexual violence—an initiative SASA has been prioritizing since June of 2018.  

Many universities around the country have implemented some kind of a confidential advocate program, be it students-centeredfaculty- and staff-centered or contracted out to a third-party organization. After four months (June-October 2018) of presenting research on programs started at various West Coast schools similar to our own and trying to convince key players that providing survivors with more confidential resources is urgent, the initiative was approved. Since then, however, nearly nothing has happened.  

We are hopeful that the administration will follow through on drafting a contract with Call to Safety—a local organization that has expressed an interest in and ability to provide UP with an unaffiliated, third-party advocate—but much remains up in the air. There somehow seems to be no funding (an estimated $50,000 is needed) for a confidential advocate, which would provide members of the community who have experienced sexual trauma with resources, support, and information about what their options are. There does, however, seem to be plenty for other, seemingly more important projects such as Franz Campus and donor appreciation events. 

We recognize that it is not that simple, but we believe that the safety and wellbeing of students should be prioritized when it comes to deciding how to allocate funds. Additionally, upper administrators have put a seemingly-permanent hold on the initiative to allow for the shift in status of what would be trained and vetted faculty members from ‘responsible employee’ to ‘confidential resource.’ This shift in status would allow survivors to share their experience with a trusted faculty member on their own terms and ensure that the autonomy of the survivor would not be further compromised by an unwanted or premature mandatory report to the TIX office.  

The way we see it, fundamental and socially just initiatives—namely providing more support and resources for community members impacted by sexual violence—are not being prioritized. If it has taken nearly a full year to get the green light on this mundane and long-overdue initiative, how long will it take to make other necessary changes at UP? 

Title IX:

Overall, the lack of transparency within and general length of the Title IX process is problematic. There are many students who have gone through some version of the Title IX process this year that speak about the traumatization, betrayal and lack of empathy and support they have felt while attempting to find justice in the aftermath of interpersonal violence. These stories are sadly not the exception and are not ours to share, however they expose some troubling trends. We have been told time and again that no Title IX cases can be discussed or disclosed to protect the privacy of both reporting and responding parties, but if meaningful conversation about reform and progress is always halted by the claim of confidentiality, how can we ever improve? What is clear is that we’ve created conditions where community members are continuing to be victimized and do not trust that the process will hold anyone accountable—we allow and tolerate a culture that perpetuates violence. 

While we have been heartened by the current Title IX Coordinators’ commitment to listening to recommendations from a wide range of community members, our university must invest in a full-time Title IX Coordinator—a position that still does not exist on our campus. Though we appreciate the restructuring of Title IX that took place last summer and the willingness of the Associate VP for Student Development and VP for Human Resources to take on these important roles, it is ultimately essential that these positions be filled by people who do not already hold full-time jobs. Putting time into one job necessarily takes time away from the other. ,Additionally, we feel we must point out that it is an inherent conflict of interest for UP’s Vice President for Human Resources to also serve as the Title IX Coordinator for Compliance.  

What we have ultimately learned this year is that the system is broken. We understand that institutions tend to be slow to change and that it is not only the University of Portland that has these issues and faces these challenges. Regardless, we can—and must—do better and demand more from our institution. We all, as stakeholders in this community, need to recognize when there is room for improvement and continue to hold those in power to a higher standard, putting the dignity of the human person at the forefront of all policies—especially those meant to address the issue of sexual violence. We must always be working towards creating a community where all members feel included, supported, listened to and most importantly, safe.  

Associated Students of the University of Portland: Sitara & Michael 

It has been one of the greatest privileges of our lives to serve our community this past year as the Student Body President & Vice President. In reflecting on the year and the work ASUP has done on matters of equity and inclusion, we feel it is of the utmost importance to be transparent about what is happening at all levels of the University.  

One of the central reasons why I [Sitara Nath] chose to run for ASUP was because of a deeply disturbing conversation I witnessed at a Board of Regents meeting last year. When I walked into the meeting with another woman of color and staff member on campus, I was first struck by the types of people at the table. The conversation was taking place primarily among white men although I was pleased to see some shifts in the diversity of voices at the table when I came to a later meeting the following fall. I sat outside of this table as a visiting guest and watched an administrator present on diversity and inclusion initiatives that UP was implementing. Immediately following the presentation, one board member asked the administrator why underrepresented students would need any kind of additional resources because their struggles on campus could potentially be attributed to being a hormonal college student. Another board member pointed to the one person of color at the table and claimed he didn’t see race. I was shocked, more so by the silence in the room rather than the comments. No one addressed the extreme tension at the time but several folks who had remained silent during the conversation apologized to me afterwards.  

I don’t share this painful memory out of any desire to reprimand key stakeholders at UP – I say it to those ‘allies’ who chose to say nothing when this opportunity for learning, growth, and cultural change was not taken advantage of. I say it to the people who had a seat at the table, knew they had the privilege and agency to stand up, and chose not to.  

A little under a year later, being in ASUP gave me a seat at that table. Having this level of agency came with challenges that Michael and I want to share in the hopes that we can cultivate a greater sense of understanding about what it means to be a student advocate on this campus. 

One of the central reasons why I [Michael Gallagher] ran as Vice President with Sitara was because I saw a specific need to advocate for LGBTQ+ students on campus and for the health of students, especially regarding sexual and reproductive health.  

For example, we do have STI testing at the University but it is not a free service. Gonorrhea and Chlamydia testing is free through Multnomah County, but HIV, Syphilis, Hepatitis A, B and C tests have costs associated with them. 

Contraceptives are not offered to students due to the claim that it is contrary to Catholic values. Oral contraceptives are only provided to moderate menstrual cycles or for “hormonal syndromes,” as reproductive control is not considered a right at this university. Other peer Catholic institutions do recognize this right and do give their students access to birth control and contraception. 

Sitara: A pivotal moment for ASUP and the community this year took place with our protest at the Red Mass. I still recall a student and dear friend who openly identifies as gay who first informed me that Fr. Scalia, a known conversion therapy advocate, was speaking on our campus. There was this deep sense of uncertainty and pain he expressed at knowing that UP gave Fr. Scalia a platform to speak on despite knowing his views. 

Upon releasing a statement notifying UP of our plan to hold a silent protest, we were told that ASUP should have taken the time to ask questions before mobilizing so dramatically. We were also told that the decision to host Fr. Scalia was a matter of ‘church politics’ and is on par with holding a wedding in the chapel.  

To me, this was the deepest institutional betrayal we could have experienced. The viewpoints held by Fr. Scalia intentionally harm the community and target folks who have long been unheard and undervalued at UP. 

Michael: This would be less concerning if UP was not an institution that has historically held anti-LGBTQ+ stances and policies. There was pushback in creating the (now known as) Gender and Sexuality Partnership, in adding sexual orientation to the Non-Discriminatory policy, and when students requested the Theology professor candidate that specialized in Queer studies be hired rather than a more conservative candidate. There was an environment of fear and outright intolerance created for queer staff and professors under Fr. Beauchamp, and a more covert version of the same sentiments has persisted through Fr. Mark Poorman’s tenure. Queer professors continue to live in fear of repercussions for nothing more than their non-straight sexualities being exposed. 

Sitara: As a UP community member, advocate of inclusion, and a student of color who closely supported folks organizing the day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, I also believe it is important to highlight the fact that 2020 will be the first year that UP will be recognizing MLK day. This may be highlighted as a success until we remember that 1986 was the year when it was first recognized nationally. 34 years too late for all the communities of color who have passed through UP. Although there were administrative excuses to participate in service on this day, missing class was a huge expectation to ask of students that obviously have to prioritize their academic wellbeing. One of the ways we must approach institutional healing is by honoring institutional betrayal, acknowledging this history, and promising ourselves that we won’t be so late on another decision that adversely impacts the inclusive environment we are trying so hard to achieve. 

Our community’s strides in equity and inclusion have been admirable this year. I am particularly proud of ASUP’s Diversity Committee and some of the events we have organized through it, including a roundtable between diversity leaders on campus and the creation of a search committee that led the theology department to hire a queer theologian. However, in a recent article in The Beacon, the progress report on UP’s inclusion work is accurately characterized as incomplete. The article refers, for example, to the fact that the search for a Director of Equity and Inclusion has not been re-initiated. I encourage all community members to remember we have a stake in these decisions and to prioritize the completion of such efforts - until then, we still have much to do.  

Moving Forward. . . 

This past year, as well as throughout our tenure at the University of Portland, the four of us have seen both exciting progress and disappointing stagnation around social justice and advocacy initiatives on campus. We believe it is necessary that the university so many of us have come to call home provide more support and resources for non-majority groups on UP’s campus. We have seen both the hurt that obscurity causes and the power that bold transparency holds, and have all (at some point or another) questioned ourselves and the work we do as a result of intimidation tactics meant to maintain the status quo and deter us from rocking the boat too much. For this reason, we truly believe that honesty and openness are crucial to promoting meaningful change, which cannot lie on the shoulders of the few students who are given a seat at the table. It is much more impactful for an institution to acknowledge that there is room for improvement and work to be done, rather than pretending that nothing is wrong in an attempt to protect the image of the institution. We do not have all the answers, but we know that there are best practices in all of these arenas (sexual assault prevention, Title IX, diversity, equity and inclusion, etc.) and that our university does not currently apply these. Everyone who is a part of this community has the power to demand change whether it is in your role as a student, faculty or staff member, administrator, alum or donor.  

We want to thank all of the community members who have advocated and showed up for these important issues and initiatives, as well as for those who have been quietly cheering us on. We want to challenge everyone to expect more and ask for better, because this institution will not change unless we demand it.  

The authors are all UP students and can be reached at the following: Shelby Gavigan (gavigan19@up.edu), Emma Covert (covert19@up.edu), Sitara Nath (nath19@up.edu) and Michael Gallagher (gallaghm19@up.edu).