The Silence Is Deafening

Institutional priorities shouldn't supersede the needs of students and their trust in their faculty members and universities, argues Kendrick Davis, in the wake of questionable behavior by a former University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education professor.

September 17, 2019

Two articles published recently in Inside Higher Ed detailed the questionable, unethical and probably illegal behaviors of Marybeth Gasman, former Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and, as of Sept. 1, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education and Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University. The pieces reported that Gasman had been accused of “fostering a hypersexualized and racially insensitive climate in her research center” and of requiring her students to sign nondisclosure agreements. As a field, we have been unreasonably silent. It is time to break that silence.

In full transparency, I was a Ph.D. student at Penn Graduate School of Education from 2015 to 2018; I took a history class with Gasman; I interacted with her in both academic and social settings; and I was close to many of the students who worked in the Penn research center before and after that time. I detected no lies in the articles. I stand with and publicly acknowledge and validate the experiences of the students that were and continue to be adversely affected by Gasman’s conduct.

The public revelation of such information was long overdue. After reading both articles, the overwhelming impression with which I was left, however, was that the people most responsible for enabling Gasman’s behavior were noticeably silent. She did not run her own department or university. As such, she was not the sole actor and arbiter of what occurred. Yet even those who have no fear of retribution from Gasman remain publicly silent.

Silence is complicity. I recognize that some people have chosen to keep thoughts and feelings out of the public sphere because they have no desire to relive traumatic and undesirable events. I further recognize that others have professional and perhaps even financial ties that discourage them from coming forward. But too many lives, including my own, have passed through the Gasman’s crosshairs for me to remain silent. Further, I acknowledge that Gasman’s behavior had become normalized at Penn GSE and did not rise to the level of concern it might have in a different context

I previously worked in education policy for a United States senator. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has remained at the forefront of the public policy agenda -- more specifically, negotiations over Title IX, which protects students against sex-based harassment, including sexual harassment (and other forms of sexual violence) and gender-based harassment. As part of my work, I’ve met with countless students and their family members, as well as staff and faculty members, who have chronicled the disruptive and traumatic impact of sexual harassment on their individual lives, their campus environments and higher education in general. To my surprise, they have spoken much less about the experiences of the accused and significantly more about the unsatisfactory responses of the institutions.

By design, faculty members have tremendous latitude in their institutional purview. Academic freedom allows a wide range of flexibility in the selection of curricular materials, the structure and design of their courses, the learning environment, and how they facilitate engagement with and between students. Countless faculty members have been shielded from internal and external pressures and influences under the guise of academic freedom -- it is what protects them from institutional interference in the educational spaces they have designed and built.

But institutional “interference” would have been appropriate in the instance of students’ subjection to sexual harassment and racially insensitive environments. In fact, a failure to interfere, especially in circumstances related to Title IX violations and the Clery Act -- a law that mandates certain actions be taken in cases of alleged sexual violence -- has resulted in some institutions paying dearly. How many other students in countless other institutions are similarly situated and have been forced into silence?

Stamps of Approval

Following the release of the first Inside Higher Ed article, the Penn GSE community received an email stating that “The University of Pennsylvania and the Graduate School of Education do not, and cannot, discuss individual personnel matters, and, as many of you know, the Center [for Minority Serving Institutions] is now based at Rutgers University.” I have not seen ducking and dodging of this kind since the Matrix movie series. As a former student, I do know that the university has made substantive changes since 2015 to ensure sexual harassment and misconduct are reported and addressed. But what level of reconciliation does that response provide for affected students?

The second article, which detailed how the Penn center staff members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, noted that experts say such a practice “leaves students vulnerable to abuse.” I struggle to see the functional difference between the Penn research center nondisclosure and the agreement of silence between Penn GSE and its institutional actors who facilitated the investigation. Both forms of silence serve the interest of a patriarchal whiteness that has been passed down from one generation of higher education to the next, keeping women and racialized minorities on the margins of society, often exposing them to sexual violence -- a fact that Gasman, a studied historian, knows well. To be clear, yes, you can be a woman and still provide uncompromising support of patriarchy. But of Penn GSE, I ask: How are affected students made whole? Where do they find closure?

I imagine certain crucial information about the process and outcomes of the investigation was kept private to adhere to legal principles or reduce the likelihood Penn was sued for breach of faculty contract. But I wonder if students are satisfied with that decision. Were they even asked their opinion? Were they informed about the outcome? I wonder whether they would have sought legal recourse outside the institution if they knew there would be such an outcome.

Penn GSE already took legal risk in enabling Gasman’s behavior. Why not take an arguably more meaningful risk that would have removed the possibility of further inappropriate activities and showed unwavering support for students? I reject the notion that confidentiality and justice cannot both be served on the same platter.

But beyond the silence, both Penn and Rutgers have now given Gasman recognized stamps of approval. I purposefully wrote in entirety her full title and designation at each institution, because endowed professorships are not bestowed lightly and require the endorsement of institutional leaders at the highest levels. That she was and continues to be recognized in such a way at both institutions -- particularly at Rutgers, where her endowment carries the name of a black civil rights leader and higher education scholar -- shows a callous and reckless disregard for students.

Evidence presented to Penn by graduate students in 2017 -- at least one of whom was a student of color -- catalyzed institutional action and resulted in the launch of a formal investigation. But the response was woefully inadequate and overdue. Penn GSE probably had knowledge of Gasman’s alleged misconduct well before the names of those students ever appeared on a Penn application. Failure to take corrective action -- at least to the extent that would have significantly decreased the likelihood of continued misconduct -- made Penn GSE vulnerable to institutional liability and sent a clear signal to students that their protection is inextricably linked to institutional risk calculations. Further, a prominent imprint of that same signal is that black and brown bodies are not valuable enough to protect.

Accountability and Transparency Required

To be fair, not all complaints against faculty members deserve serious attention. Further, legitimate complaints against faculty -- such as using racially insensitive language to describe the populations of students they teach -- can fall flat due to academic freedom and tenure protections. But none of the legal principles, structures or case law I taught in my Law and Higher Education class at Penn GSE suggests that institutional priorities should supersede the needs of students, their legal rights and the faith and trust they place in faculty members and the institution broadly. These were no longer the improper actions of one faculty member, but they became intimately integrated into the political maneuverings of an institution that prioritized protecting itself over acting in the best interest of its students -- those who make significant personal and financial investments in their educational journeys, with the minimal expectation that such education occurs in a caring and safe environment.

Incidents like these call into question the integrity of not just the institution but also the thousands of faculty members who carry a portion of the institutional reputation as employees -- not to mention those of us who have graduated from Penn GSE programs that are consistently ranked among the best. All of us reasonably expect that Penn puts just as much energy into creating a positive and safe educational experience for students as they do to secure top-10 rankings. One thing is clear -- if it were my child who was subjected to Gasman’s behavior and then left unguarded, Penn would be tied up in so much litigation that they would have to establish a separate endowment fund to handle the legal proceedings.

But, as the letter to the Penn GSE community clearly stated, this is no longer Penn’s problem but Rutgers’s. The latter's public response: “The Graduate School of Education vetted Dr. Gasman before her appointment and eagerly looks forward to her joining the faculty as an internationally recognized expert in higher education.” Rutgers GSE has decided that the harassment and hypersexualization of black and brown bodies is not its problem, either. So whose problem is it?

Just as at Penn, Rutgers’s decision to stand behind Gasman is a decision to prop up the white power structure that enabled the problematic behavior in the first place. Such structures have historically and continuously rendered vulnerable populations exposed and disposed. Perhaps the accusations about Gasman’s conduct did not turn up in Rutgers officials’ initial vetting, but they could have at least committed to following up on the allegations and doing an internal investigation -- not for the Penn students but for the current Rutgers ones who may be questioning the integrity of the institution in which they are now enrolled.

Is it the problem of funders and the broader philanthropic community who have supported Gasman’s work for many years, who now have the opportunity to ask direct and pointed questions concerning the public allegations? Will they challenge themselves to juxtapose their organizational values and mission with those of the institutional stewards they entrust to carry forward their work, not just as fiduciary agents but as agents of equity and integrity? Or will they choose to do the easy -- and unfortunately more acceptable -- act of turning a blind eye? I implore the philanthropic community to do the former, as the latter choice continues to foster a sense of “othering”: treating vulnerable, underserved and underrepresented populations like they belong on the margins of institutions of higher education and society writ large.

Accountability and transparency are not just intellectually stimulating terms that litter the headings and paragraphs of peer-reviewed higher education journal articles. They are the very lifeblood through which students continue to build relationships of trust with faculty members, administrators and institutions. My hope is that students at all institutions, not just Penn, feel seen and heard, and that silence will no longer be acceptable.

Students everywhere should feel empowered to hold institutions fully responsible for the conduct that occurs on their campuses, especially when connected to behavior that those institutions have enabled. Academic freedom and equal protection flow from the same basic interests: that everyone should be safe, secure and free to live their best lives in the places of their choosing.


Kendrick Davis earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in 2018.


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