New grievance policy provides students an outlet

Emily Lin-Jones

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According to the Statement of Rights included in the Student Handbook, all students have “the right to redress grievances”––but it wasn’t until this year that they were given an official means to do so. The college has published online this year an interim grievance policy, which gives students, staff and faculty the ability to formally lodge a complaint against another member of the Whitman community.

According to the policy, possible grievances could include violations of academic freedom, discrimination and any type of sexual or discriminatory harassment. Under the new policy any student or employee can bring their concerns about another individual’s behavior to the Dean of Students or Director of Human Resources, respectively. There they may choose either to informally resolve their complaint by allowing an administrator to mediate between the involved parties, or transition to a formal complaint process which involves an investigation and a potential hearing. The grievance process is entirely confidential and includes protection from retaliation.

“It puts everyone on equal footing and it makes students, faculty and staff feel that if there is ever an issue or concern, there is a form of recourse,” said ASWC President Kayvon Behroozian. Members of ASWC and the student body at large have long advocated the creation of the policy.

The policy itself has been almost seven years in the making, according to Associate Dean of Students Clare Carson, although much of the work in actually assembling it has happened over the past two years.

“[It was] mostly for students; where do students go if they think they’re being treated unfairly? We do say that students have a right to be heard, and we didn’t really have a means for that. There wasn’t an official mechanism for the college to deal with these grievances,” Carson said.

In the past, student and staff complaints have mostly been dealt with separately according to different codes and policies depending on the nature of the allegations. Carson said the grievance policy attempts to provide a more unified and clear way for any member of the community to speak out about the actions of another.

“This is a universal policy that affects everyone,” Carson said. “That was what was missing [before]. We had different ways of addressing and resolving problems but we didn’t have a universal plan.”

Though certain policies were already in place to address specific types of harassment––such as the sexual misconduct policy covering situations involving two students––some avenues of potential harassment had been left open. Until the grievance policy’s creation there was no way for students to formally file allegations of harassment or discrimination against a faculty member, a particular point of concern for student advocates of the policy.

“Sometimes if students encounter a problem with faculty, with the power dynamics it’s difficult for students to speak up. If there’s a policy in place it’s easier for them to start the process,” said senior Marcial Diaz Mejia, ASWC vice president.

According to Carson and others, a major driving force behind the development of the new policy was Title IX, a federal law which prohibits gender- or sex-based discrimination in educational institutions. Last year Whitman received notice that it needed to take certain steps to be in compliance with Title IX, including having a definitive policy in place that would allow students to file complaints of harassment or discrimination against a faculty member.

As Whitman’s Title IX administrator, Carson was heavily involved in overseeing the policy’s development. Other contributors included the student and faculty members of the Student Life Committee, who played a key role in helping draft the policy.

Associate Professor of English Scott Elliott, who has served on the committee for three years, observed that the lengthy development time was likely extended by staff and student turnover and its increasingly ambitious scope.

“When you’re dealing with something that potentially impacts so many people’s lives, there’s a lot of care taken [in developing it],” Elliott said.

The policy, in its current form, has been reviewed and approved by the Committee of Division Chairs. If it gets the go-ahead at an upcoming all-faculty meeting and is approved by the Board of Trustees, the policy will be made official, losing its interim status and gaining a place in next year’s Student Handbook.

“Before, we were very lucky that something major didn’t blow up, because easily someone could have pointed out that we didn’t have a system in place, and that would have not looked very professional,” said junior Brian Choe, a member of the Student Life Committee who helped draft the policy. “I think this is a good step forward.”

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