In November 2019 a former member of the UNH Student Senate (Senate) spoke with reporters and editors from The New Hampshire about their concerns that more experienced members of the Senate took advantage of their leadership positions to create a hostile environment of sexual harassment. The student spoke with the Dean of Students (Dean) in mid-December 2019 and repeated those concerns, expressing hope that structural reforms to the Senate would occur. The Dean and the UNH Title IX Coordinator appointed an investigator to undertake an independent inquiry of this campus governance body to help him and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity assess the report they received.
The investigator interviewed 18 students, 1 staff member and conducted 21 interviews. Several students, both current and former Senators and both male and female students, reported an environment of harassment and hostile environment sexual harassment in the Senate. Of the students who corroborate the existence of this environment, nearly all attribute substantial responsibility to a small group of individuals, and not to the Senate as a whole.
A comprehensive report was submitted to the Dean and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity in late January. Many students who participated in the inquiry, however, requested that their names not be disclosed for concern of reputational damage, retaliation, or the disclosure of sensitive personal matters. The Dean therefore directed that this summary be prepared to provide a fair overview of what was learned in the inquiry, and the findings the Dean and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity reached, while attempting to protect the privacy of individual students involved. The narrative below provides a composite account drawn from many different students’ statements. It is important to note that the composite view, of necessity, may not fully reflect every individual student’s account.
Hostility and Antagonism among Officers
Disagreement is a normal part of any political body. Most Senators reported that learning to bring consensus from disagreement is a valuable skill they learn in the Senate. At the same time, however, many students described incidents where disagreements between and among senior members of Senate erupted in destructive ways in the Senate offices or on the Senate floor. A substantial number of the persons who left the Senate or who redirected their involvement to SAFC, both men and women, attributed their decision to the toxic environment that they felt had grown in the Senate.
Those who defended the environment often argued that those who were frustrated with it had not “mastered” the Senate by-laws. On balance, however, the Dean found that “mastery” of the by-laws too often caused some members of Senate to have their legislative efforts undermined, not based on the merits of their position or on the basis of serving student needs, but on technicalities, in ways that unfairly fostered disillusionment with their participation in this governance body.
Hostile Climate toward Women Senators and Officers
Student Senators nearly universally described a “boys club” in connection with the Senate, though they frequently disagreed what that term meant. It appears beyond serious dispute, however, that comments were commonly directed toward the physical appearance of female Senators and officers, that sexual jokes and banter frequently occurred in the Senate offices, causing at least some female Senators and officers to avoid the Senate offices, and that concerted efforts to undermine the confidence of elected female officers resulted in some officers experiencing distress, and other officers to leave (or seriously consider leaving) the Senate. Worse, female Senators and officers felt that their efforts to redirect or confront these practices were unsuccessful. Worse still, several witnesses reported that they were actively discouraged from sharing their concerns about these practices with the Dean and others. The Dean and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity emphasize that no one, and no workplace, has the right to demand that their co-workers submit to sexual harassment or refrain from reporting sexual harassment. No Senator defended that proposition, and many Senators requested additional education on preventing and recognizing sexual harassment.
Some witnesses tried to minimize the impacts of the reported behaviors, however, by arguing that there were recent improvements in the climate, that there are a substantial number of women in leadership positions in UNH student government and that the motivations behind these behaviors was benign. Unfortunately, the overwhelming weight of the evidence available to the Dean establishes that female Senators and officers faced conduct that unjustly, substantially, unreasonably and consistently interfered with their participation in this co-curricular activity and created an intimidating environment for them.
The Office of Affirmative Action and Equity and the Dean also note that this is the third time in five years that they have responded to concerns that the Senate has been unable to create a climate that promotes the participation of women on fair and equal terms. As a University governance body and as a co-curricular activity that seeks to provide a professional working environment, it is essential that the University help the Senate update its processes so that no student finds barriers to participation based on their gender, race or membership in any protected class.
Many students reported that the leadership of Senate unfairly perpetuates itself through the process of individual Senate leaders selecting, recruiting and preparing younger members to succeed them. The evidence on this point was disputed. Many students pointed to both a perception and to concrete ways (control of stipends, threats of impeachment, involvement of Senate alumni) that a control group could both perpetuate its vision of Senate’s role and the selection of their successors. Other students argued that Senate by-laws effectively prevent one cohort of officers from selecting their successors. The Dean and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity found, however, in part through evidence supplied on the sexual harassment claim, that younger Senators are subjected to an unacceptable risk that they may never even understand the ways that more senior Senators and officers influence the process of selecting future officers. As a result, the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity and the Dean believe that it is important for the Senate itself to examine the processes for enforcing discipline, filling council chairs and selecting officers to promote the capacity of current students to decide what the role, scope and direction of the Senate will be, and to eliminate the risk that any student will be subjected to sexual harassment in the process of seeking leadership opportunities.
Some Senators argued that current methods of selecting its leaders promotes the Senate’s autonomy and ability to serve student interests. Unfortunately, the weight of the evidence led to the conclusion that adherence to Senate “tradition” too often results in current Senators deciding to leave the body and abandon their own visions for how to meet the needs of current students. The Office of Affirmative Action and Equity and the Dean will charge the Senate itself to examine its by-laws with the help of a panel of outside experts, to devise ways of recruiting, training and selecting future leaders that honors 21st century norms of gender equality, human dignity and fairness, while preserving the Senate’s role as an independent voice for UNH student interests.