Query: Cultivating a good atmosphere in challenging circumstances

As readers know, I spend a lot of time talking to people in departments with climate problems. One issue that arises in many cases is how to deal with the continued presence of people who are known or suspected to be a problem. Sometimes this is someone who has “done their time”– e.g. had a year of unpaid leave; sometimes it’s someone who was cleared of all charges but about whom suspicion still lingers; sometimes it’s someone trailing a history of well-known problems. What often comes up in conversations is the question of how to react to these situations. The situations differ from each other in many, many ways. But what’s common to them is that they create difficulties for the community– how to make the department as safe and welcoming a place as it can be for everyone is chief among them. What I’m asking about is not the formal remedies– in these cases they have already run their course. My concern is with what those concerned about climate can do to cultivate as good an atmosphere as possible in such a challenging situation. These situations are in fact quite widespread, so I’m guessing there is a lot of knowledge out there in our readership. I’d be grateful for your thoughts.

24 thoughts on “Query: Cultivating a good atmosphere in challenging circumstances

  1. In some cases it helps just to quarantine the person. That is, everybody else behaves cordially and professionally to everyone but they try to make sure that the person isn’t going to infect that climate. For instance, if the problem is inappropriate remarks to women students, the chair of the department sees to it that the offender is never assigned a woman as his TA. This does NOT fix all the problems, of course. But there’s something to the thought that if everybody but one person sings on key, that person is less likely to go off pitch.

  2. Are these cases ones in which pretty much all the faculty are in agreement, and the chair is reasonably effective? I think that if the bad-but-legal behavior is continuing, and it is the sort of thing that will negatively affect students, then that is an important problem without a straightforward fix. It might help if the department has something like a climate office, where students can go with climate issues. Students need to know the faculty are aware that there’s a problem, and the department still needs to track the behavior in case the offenses get worse, etc.

    It might also be good for students to know that some kinds of jerkiness are not fixable. It will help prepare them for professional life.

  3. We can’t control or create climate. We can do our best to understand how one functions productively and how community members pull together when faced with adverse conditions.

  4. I have a related really tricky query, I’m not at all sure what to do about. Discriminatory actor still in department; still a problem, known to be problem. Students generally aware of that, though they are still vulnerable to person in question in various ways. Relevant people in charge believe themselves to be allies, but are wholly unaware of their own tendencies to make excuses (generally of the form, ‘yes, x was a very bad thing to do, and yes, person has history of bad behavior and public statements with regard to y group, but you don’t *know* in this particular case [insert Cartesian standard of ‘know’ here] that x bad behavior was on account of target’s membership in y group.’ All of that would be bad enough. But now a person has been put in charge of vetting complaints and concerns in this territory whom I know, but the students do not, has such a close alliance with discriminatory actor and history of acting for the sake of preserving that alliance that the chances that that person will act for the sake of said students when complaints arise about discriminatory actor are something between nearly nil and nil. I can’t tell students what I know. The ax would fall on me if I suggested to students caution in bringing complaints to person now in charge of vetting them. And even if I let that ax fall, because I cannot tell students what I know, the students would have no particular reason to believe me, since the person-in-charge-of-complaints does not themselves have a public history of discriminatory conduct or views (isn’t in fact discriminatory, except in the sense of willing to let discriminatory actor do whatever for the sake of their self-interest). It looks to me like all I can do is be available, let the hell fall out that will fall, and try and help pick up the pieces when it does. But wow, that’s a depressing non-solution.

  5. Anonymous, as I understand it, intentions are irrelevant if there is genuine discrimination. You might get legal advice on this, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have to prove intentions.

    Any chance of asking for a site visit?

  6. site visit– no chance. none. It was discussed, but after the CO case, people who were vacillating became firmly self-protective, and there is no moving them. The legal avenue is viable, as a legal matter (and I have talked to attorneys), but as a practical matter (esp. given the vulnerabilities of the parties in question) a non-starter. The whole situation is Hobbesian.

  7. Anonymous, you might see if your university has an Ombudsperson (or some other disinterested mechanism with some pretense of authority that is well trained in mediation). I have found that at my institution this has proved to be an excellent way of addressing problems that, for various reasons, it would have been problematic for me to bring forward. Ombudspersons are trained in this sort of mediation, are typically sensitive to these sorts of institutional problems, and also seem to have some amorphous authority that is just enough for them to be taken seriously, but not so much as to send people into a panic.

  8. I think there are two points that may create a problem for do-nothings like those in anon’s department.

    1. As noted before, what matters with discrimination are effects, not intentions. Chairs certainly ought to know this.

    2. If you know about discrimination, you are legally obliged to report it to the relevant authorities.

    I have to say that my knowledge of 1 is dated- from 2002. And my knowledge of 2 is indirect in that it was said in an APA meeting last Dec. apparently it emerged from site visit training.

  9. The statement that “If you know about discrimination, you are legally obliged to report it to the relevant authorities,” is really attributable to the responsibilities of institutions, but indeed, by extension relevant to their representatives and employees. See the Title IX language available in the APA Sexual Harassment Ad Hoc committee report, “We Can Act,” http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/sexualharassmentreport.pdf
    and always available on the website of the Office of Civil Rights:

    A school has a responsibility to respond promptly and effectively.
    If a school
    knows or reasonably should know about sexual harassment or sexual violence that
    creates a hostile environment, the school must take immediate action to eliminate
    the sexual harassment or sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its

    Even if an individual does not want to file a complaint or does not request that the
    school take any action on the student’s behalf, if a school knows or reasonably
    should know about possible sexual harassment or sexual violence, it must
    promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps
    to resolve the situation.

    A criminal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence
    does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints
    promptly and equitably

  10. But there’s nothing on the OCR site (that I can find) about duties of individuals to report cases of discrimination they know about.

    That would be unusually onerous, and in my opinion a bad idea.

  11. Kate, thanks so much for joining in. I think the discussion I have in mind occurred at a session you organized for the Dec Apa. At some point there was some discussion about the legal advice given at the big 2013 diversity conference. In fact, the advice was given during the site visit training that followed the conference. I understood Nancy Bauer to say that they were told by the consultant/lawyer that if a prof knows of an instance of sexual harassment, they are legally obliged to report it. As I remember, the question being discussed concerned advising victims. The reporting obligation makes the advising much more complicated.

    Please do realize that I am merely reporting what I remember. If the view is wrong, the fault is mine, not Nancy Bauer’s. At the same time, the situation illustrates the value of professional advice, if it is true that we all have reporting obligation.

  12. Let me add, after looking over what Kate said/quoted, it seems to me unlikely that a school could have obligation that did not extend to its representatives.

  13. A school’s obligations may extend to its administrators, but I don’t think any of its obligations extend to its employees in general. (I’m not sure what you mean by its ‘representatives’ in this context.) Anyway, as far as I could tell, the OCR site doesn’t mention reporting obligations at all.

    I’m sure this is well-meant, but it would be bad if readers came away with the mistaken impression that they are legally required to report everything they perceive to be sexual harassment.


    Second, Title IX of the United States Department of Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities. Sexual harassment, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sexual discrimination. A student who is sexually harassed or assaulted may also suffer from unequal access to educational opportunities and may be afraid to come to campus, go to class, or visit a faculty or staff member’s office. While statistics on sexual violence on campuses across the nation have increased, it is still believed that these cases are severely underreported. In April 2011, The US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights distributed a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL). The DCL expanded the required steps that schools (colleges and K-12) must take if there is a violation of Title IX to now include all employees of college campuses to be mandated reporters.

    What do I have to report?
    If a student reports that s/he has been sexually victimized then you are required by Title IX to report all information you are given to the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. Even if the assault occurs off campus, if it involves WOU students, it must be reported. For your convenience, there is Anonymous Report Form that you can fill out on-line.

    This is from western Oregon’s site.

  15. Many thanks all, for the very useful stuff about mandatory reporting. But can I gently try to nudge the conversation back to the original topic?

  16. I regret acting against Jender’s request, but this is very important. See the passage below from the dear colleague letter. The fact that reasonable readers can disagree over the interpretation is an illustration of what leads me to recommend getting a lawyer’s advice in these matters. In this case – one’s own reporting responsibilities – a university lawyer may suffice, but might also be happy to cover things up, I fear.

    Because of these requirements, which are discussed in greater detail in the following section, schools need to ensure that their employees are trained so that they know to report harassment to appropriate school officials, and so that employees with the authority to address harassment know how to respond properly. Training for employees should include practical information about how to identify and report sexual harassment and violence. OCR recommends that this training be provided to any employees likely to witness or receive reports of sexual harassment and violence, including teachers, school law enforcement unit employees, school administrators, school counselors, general counsels, health personnel, and resident advisors.

  17. That passage is about duties of schools. It imposes no duties on employees to report!

    I don’t think a lawyer in the university counsel’s office is going to advise you to violate your legal duties. But anyway, here is what the Title IX Administrators’ Blog says:

    While Title VII (employee-on-employee) complaints have led to widespread reporting mandates on college campuses, Title IX only requires reporting from “responsible employees,” those whose role gives them authority to address and remedy gender-based discrimination and harassment.

    And I apologize to Jender for my part in distracting from the important issue of cultivating a good atmosphere. I will retire (gracefully?) now.

  18. Name and challenge the resistance, gently but firmly. Frame the process in terms of reflective practice and a continuing drive to improve outcomes for all stakeholders, ie a self evaluation exercise in response to trending issues in the field. You could include other contemporary issues too, perhaps, to avoid it seeming like a knee jerk reaction to recent events. Form a steering group, preferably including representatives of all stakeholders, to review the vision or aims (however you want to present the cultural agreement of the group), agree the format of the process and the self evaluation questions. e.g. to create a climate conducive to learning in which all participants feel … comfortable/valued/safe/able to discuss concerns/??? Then carry out structured consultation using questions agreed, getting student reps etc to feed back and to staff for open discussion. Outcomes might (should) include: recognition of and agreement regarding behaviours deemed to be conducive to creating a safe learning environment; global responsibility in promoting an open and accountable community with shared duty of care (on ethical grounds if not legal), which means that everybody is responsible for referring concerns, and if these aren’t dealt with in house, a responsibility to go above the head of the in house person and refer it out of house (standard protection procedures for children/vulnerable adults); an articulated resolution to ensure a safe and comfortable climate for all, with an expectation that whistle blowing WILL be encouraged; a robust reporting policy (the uni should have one but maybe you can supplement it with a departmental procedure, or ensure that everybody knows and will adhere to the uni policy/procedure). If a culture of zero tolerance can be agreed, and actively promoted in a positive manner, those who choose to flout it or ignore it, and of course there will be some, will soon either fall in, fall out or be assisted out. Nobody wants to admit to being that dinosaur, and the behaviour continues because people condone it by continuing to turn blind eyes. This is standard practice for organisations which deal with vulnerable people, and while university populations are mainly configured of competent adults, where there are inequalities of power and status, everybody is at risk of being vulnerable. Just one final point, this sounds like a monstrous task – it really isn’t. It’s more about the articulation of a group resolution than anything. Powerful and effective.

  19. Kerry, your comment seems to me to be very valuable, but also very dense. It takes some time to work through individual points, and you don’t give much in the way of clarifying examples. I’m wondering if you could take one or two points and elaborate them with examples.

  20. My experience is in working within organisations such as schools, colleges, children centres etc. An effective strategy to challenge residual poor attitudes, practices or inappropriate behaviours is to openly address them as a group rather than covertly wondering how it might be addressed by only those who feel compelled to act. For example, shouting at children in a school environment is completely at odds with recognised good practice, for many obvious reasons. Unfortunately, it’s a deeply entrenched behaviour and part of the underlying and unacknowledged culture within many schools. Nobody openly admits to being so out of control of a class that they resort to bellowing, but others know about it and often choose not to challenge it, maybe because the staff member is a member of the leadership team or a strong and difficult staff room presence. To act individually requires an inordinate amount of courage, so often the behaviour goes unchallenged. Worse, it is modelled to other staff, becomes normalised and almost becomes tacit consent to others to behave in the same way, thereby perpetuating the culture.

    Often perpetrators are unaware of the detrimental effects of their behaviour. e.g. Parents often say “I was smacked and it never hurt me”. The first step has to be an acknowledgement by the group of the harm which possibly results from the behaviour. If this can’t be achieved by in house discussion resulting from scaffolded consultation (ie questions designed to capture the kinds of responses one might expect), external agencies can deliver training/intervention/awareness raising.

    The difficulty is that organisations also have a duty of care to the perpetrator and have to proceed in a way that won’t result in their marginalisation, unless all other attempts to right the situation have been attempted. By presenting the exercise as a self evaluation and as an opportunity for reflective practice, it becomes generic and less threatening than a direct response to known behaviours occurring within the group. Obviously it will be recognised for what it is, but just as people are reluctant to challenge inappropriate behaviour, they will be equally reluctant to undermine an attempt to address the issues.

    The open consultation allows for exploration of what constitutes a conducive learning environment, identified in positive opposites to the challenging behaviours. In schools where shouting is an issue, we ask children what makes them feel safe enough to learn and without fail we get, amongst others, the response we want – a teacher who stays calm and doesn’t shout. Staff are similarly consulted, using questions devised to reflect aspects of the school/centre vision statement. Staff who are reluctant to voice their concerns in person will articulate them within confidential questionnaires.

    Once the open discussion reaches the level of staff ie. paid stakeholders, and representatives of other stakeholder groups, the aim is group adoption of resolutions devised as a result of the process. In reaching agreement, the negative behaviours will become part of the discussion, eg. “Shouting makes children feel uncomfortable/unsafe”, so that becomes the implication, or even explication, of the resolution, ie “We speak to one another respectfully at all times”.

    The rest is a form of contract theory. Having been part of the process, the group adopts the resolutions, and those who may be resistant or scathing of the process may say so, but it effectively puts them in a position where they marginalise themselves should they choose to disregard or act against the consensus. It’s much easier not to turn a blind eye once shared values have been articulated and promoted.

    Procedures informed by the resolutions passed are crucial. Preplanning a set response to certain types of incident ensures that everybody knows in advance what to do should a concern be reported, and each incident is dealt with in the same way. This flips the default response as the expectation is that concerns be sensitively referred. Even if the incident isn’t deemed serious enough to be acted upon, the knowledge that it has been reported and recorded often acts as a future deterrent to the perpetrator. It’s often easier if the person dealing with complaints can be independent from staff to ensure impartiality, so within a school for example, the concern will be reported to the head teacher who would collaborate with the chair of governors who stands at a distance to the staff. This supports openness and accountability.

    I’ve successfully used this process in a number of organisations, mainly to address poor and outdated practice, staff room bullying and student group conflict (racist, homophobic and sexist). For more extreme issues or those which are more deeply entrenched, an intervention such as Sara Savage’s “Integrative Complexity” programme, based on her paper “Being Muslim, Being British” is particularly useful.

    Apologies for the length of this post.

  21. I’m someone who left a bad environment in challenging circumstances, after hoping for some time that a good environment could have nonetheless been cultivated. This comment from Kerry resonated quite strongly with me: “The first step has to be an acknowledgement by the group of the harm which possibly results from the behaviour.”

    There are all sorts of challenges to cultivating good environments, and they come in varying degrees, but one consistent feature of good environments that I’m familiar with is a communal willingness to acknowledge possible harms. At the institution I left, the lack of this was my primary motivation for leaving, not the underlying offenses.

    Rather than a communal tendency towards acknowledgement, there was a culture of silence. No discussion of the department’s social challenges took place without the conversation being redirected towards either the possibility of those who felt victimized or marginalized being over sensitive, of misinterpreting the intentions of those who they believed had harmed them (even when, as it was usually, intentions were never the issue), or of what positive features of the community it was believed we should focus on instead.

    It was difficult in those discussions to not feel a sense of betrayal. Dealing with challenges can difficult to be sure, but silencing and redirection communicates that the offended person is not even fully enough a member of the community such that impediments to their relationship to it should be taken seriously, or that they are not intelligent or sophisticated enough to understand their own experience.

    I don’t know how a willingness to acknowledge possible harms can be cultivated except organically, though–but I do think that if you can accomplish this, you will get very far towards creating a good atmosphere.

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