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Jennifer Freyd is founder and president of a new center funding research on institutional betrayal—and courage.

Courtesy of Jennifer Freyd

A new research center has funded its first round of grants focused on how institutions, including higher education institutions, can harm the people who depend on them—and how they can do better.

The Center for Institutional Courage, founded by Jennifer Freyd, a professor emerit of psychology at the University of Oregon, is focused on funding research on “institutional betrayal”—a term for when an institution causes harm to people who depend upon it—and what Freyd sees as its antidote, “institutional courage.”

The center defines institutional courage, in part, as “an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost.” It is also “a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution.”

“I would love to see a lot more research on what are the most effective steps institutions can take to be more courageous,” said Freyd, the president of the center, which is a standalone nonprofit organization.

“One of the things I’ve been advocating for is cherishing the whistle-blower, the people that are brave and come forward and say, ‘There’s a problem here,’” Freyd said. “We all know that’s often met with punishment, with retaliation, and that is so counter to the long-term interests of the institution—yet institutions do that. How do we change that practice; how do we get institutions to start cherishing those people, rewarding them in ways that incentivize those behaviors and help institutions find out about problems sooner rather than later so they can address them?

“And how do we help institutions and people within institutions be more willing to acknowledge wrongdoing and issue apologies?” Freyd continued. “We know apologies and acknowledgment are so powerful in healing and allow growth and also create trust. Institutions need to be trusted to be effective, but the trust needs to be earned and the way to earn it is to be transparent and acknowledge wrongdoing and mistakes and apologize. Why is that so hard?”

Freyd has firsthand experience feeling betrayed by an institution on which she depended. Earlier this year, she settled a lawsuit she filed against the University of Oregon after learning that the university was paying her $18,000 less per year than male colleagues closest in rank to her. The university agreed to pay her $350,000 to cover her claims for damages and her attorneys’ fees and also agreed to donate $100,000 to the Center for Institutional Courage.

The winners of the center’s first research grants were announced last month. Their research projects will explore issues of institutional betrayal and courage in bodies including health-care institutions, courts, K-12 schools and higher education.

Jennifer M. Gómez, a board member and chair of the Center for Institutional Courage’s Research Advisory Committee and a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, said many of the research projects center on issues of structural inequality.

“The work that these phenomenal researchers are doing is hard to get funded, because it’s touching on issues like sexual violence—things that people don’t want to acknowledge exist—and additionally marginalization and oppression. People don’t want to admit that racism exists or that it exists within the fabric of American society, within the fabric of our institutions, and that institutions themselves can be doing harmful things and institutions that we need have problems with perpetrating harm," said Gómez, who is on leave from her assistant professorship at Wayne State University.

Several of the funded projects focus on Title IX, the law that prohibits gender discrimination in higher education, and mandatory reporting policies that require most or all employees at a college or university to report instances of sexual misconduct they learn about regardless of the wishes of the person who reported the misconduct.

“Policies that use a compelled disclosure approach, where everyone has to report no matter what can foster institutional betrayal, a feeling that the university does not have [a survivor’s] best interest at heart, and that can cause harm,” said Kathryn Holland, an assistant professor of psychology and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Holland and her co-investigator, Rachael Goodman-Williams of Wichita State University, are conducting a survey of Title IX coordinators to learn more about their mandatory reporting policies and how they’re implemented, the practitioners’ attitudes toward those policies, and predictive factors of those attitudes. Holland said the $4,000 grant from the center will provide funding for $15 gift cards for survey participants.

“Without this grant, I am not sure where else I would get this work funded,” said Holland. “There would be some potential other mechanisms, like the American Psychological Association, but it’s just really difficult to get projects like this funded.”

Another funded project will examine Asian college students’ experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violence and xenophobia and their help-seeking behaviors.

“Instead of blaming it on the students not seeking out help, we’re instead thinking about how may the institution frame the system in a way that’s not accessible for those students,” said Jianchao Lai, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Social Welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is conducting the research along with Jennifer Wagman and Eunhee Park, both also of UCLA.

Lai said the research is asking whether the system that is supposed to protect Asian students in effect silences their voices.

“We’re emphasizing the bidirectional relationship—not only just the individual, not only the institutional narrative, but also how the institution, what they’ve done in the past, will shape the discourse among the potential service recipients and in turn change the help-seeking behaviors of the students,” she said. “Maybe there are some bad experiences with Title IX—maybe it’s the service not being accessible, or not being empathetic—that have created a discourse that has prevented students from reaching out.”

Another project funded by the center focuses on the concept of “institutional betrayal and institutional DARVO” in the context of oppression and racism on campus. As defined in an article by Freyd, DARVO refers to an acronym used to describe the behavior of perpetrators who “Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender.”

“DARVO has historically been conceptualized as an individual dynamic that would happen between a perpetrator and their victim,” said Marina Rosenthal, an assistant professor in the counseling and psychology doctoral program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota who is conducting the research on institutional betrayal and DARVO with Kathryn LaBore, a colleague at Saint Mary’s. “Part of what we’re doing is extending that to an institutional context what would it look like if institutions engage in DARVO.”

Rosenthal said she and LaBore plan to create survey instruments—one measuring students’ perception of colleges’ action or inaction around issues of issues of racism and other forms of systemic oppression, and another measuring the way institutions use DARVO tactics—and to explore the relationship between institutional betrayal related to systemic oppression, institutional DARVO and students’ sense of belonging.

“What we know from prior research on institutional betrayal is that when bad things happen to students on campus, their school has the power to help, to act with courage and make it better, and the school also has the power to make things a lot worse,” said Rosenthal. “Institutional betrayal has been applied to experiences of sexual assault. Now we’re asking another question: How is it for students when they perceive that their institution is not taking action against oppression, or taking action in a way that feels really flawed?”

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