Last week, a sexual harassment lawsuit against USC and professor Erick Guerrero went public, and University administrators once again found themselves struggling to offer a response to a media firestorm.
Karissa Fenwick, a doctoral student at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, filed a lawsuit alleging Guerrero harassed her in his New Orleans hotel room in January. Just this past week, Guerrero’s attorney released a letter saying USC’s Title IX office mishandled the investigation, and Fenwick publicly criticized the University for not sufficiently punishing Guerrero.
Then, Dworak-Peck jumped into the fray. Sixty-eight of the school’s faculty members sent a letter Saturday expressing their disapproval of the University’s actions in the aftermath of Fenwick’s harassment complaint, and approximately 60 social work students formed a coalition to speak out against the school’s lack of transparency in handling sexual harassment complaints.
Dworak-Peck was added to the laundry list of USC departments mired in controversy over the last semester — and yet the school’s dean, Marilyn Flynn, offered a refreshing, proactive response that senior administration should aspire to model moving forward. In a letter penned by Flynn last week, the dean urged Dworak-Peck faculty to devote spaces and class time for students to ask questions and express their concerns about Guerrero.
Her letter addressed a key criticism from students and faculty in her school regarding the Guerrero incident: poor transparency from the senior administration. Flynn demonstrated a willingness to engage with students and faculty members that has yet to be seen from other members of the administration.
Flynn has been instrumental in facilitating much-needed dialogue between students and staff not only through her letter, but also through partaking in a meeting on Monday with 35 Dworak-Peck doctoral students, along with Martin Levine, the school’s vice provost. Students in attendance said in a letter sent to the Daily Trojan that in the meeting, the dean agreed to publicly acknowledge Fenwick’s harassment claims and also form a committee to review policies within the school that deal with sexual misconduct.
“We are pleased that Dean Flynn has agreed to partner with us in achieving our goal of confronting the unspoken grand challenge of ending sexual misconduct and abuse of power at our University and providing an example of institutional leadership on this issue,” they said in the letter.
Instead of promising ambiguous task forces and holding impersonal town halls — as seen at the Keck School of Medicine of USC following the resignations of the past two deans, and in the Bovard Administration Building after the resignation of a senior administrator — Flynn made honest, tangible suggestions for improvement and met with a small group of students to discuss moving forward. Furthermore, she didn’t just show up to the meeting — she left having made tangible commitments to the students of the school.
The University’s administration must follow the lead of Flynn and senior faculty at Dworak-Peck, and open up forums to USC students. In a Sunday memorandum to the student body, Provost Michael Quick admitted that he does not have the answers to an issue this nuanced and it is “something we will need to grapple with as a community.”
Quick has acknowledged that students must be involved in the solution to this greater community issue, but did not detail any plan to include and engage the student body. The next step to acknowledging the need for the administration to reach across the aisle must be to take concrete action. This means senior administrators must host and be present at forums and events, and partner and communicate with student organizations, residence halls and cultural assemblies. Administrators must clearly communicate what resources are available to students who fall victim to harassment, and vocalize their support for all students who are on the receiving end of these abuses of power — as Flynn has done this past week. In the same vein, students must be given opportunities to voice their concerns and ideas for solutions.
Above all, these forums, meetings and open interactions between students and senior administrators could serve to hold the University accountable to the people it serves, and pressure USC to be more transparent about how it is handling issues of this scope.
USC must make a greater effort to be public and facilitate clear communication about how it investigates these cases, and the rights of both parties when allegations are made. And in order to do this, administrators need leaders like Flynn to be willing to come out and address the problem head-on. Only when students feel safe and respected will they be empowered to come forward and speak truth to power, and only then will there be real change on campus.
Daily Trojan Fall 2017 Editorial Board