Pepper Hamilton report draws criticism from faculty members

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The release of the long awaited Pepper Hamilton reporta 130-page diagnosis of sexual assault policypractices and debate at Occidental, has generated backlash from faculty, who claim the report is biased and fails to provide adequate policy recommendations.

Attorneys Gina Smith and Lisa Gomez were tasked in March 2013 to provide an assessment of Occidental’s sexual assault policies, procedures and responses.

Their report lists several key findings: First, that the college has taken “sincere and significant steps” to increase the number of sexual assault resources and information for students; second, that administrators have improved the college’s responsiveness to reports of sexual misconduct and assault; and third, that the Occidental activist community displays an intense distrust of the administration and has polarized the campus.

Smith and Gomez also provide a number of recommendations in the report. They suggest that the college foster dialogue between students and administrators about concerns related to sexual assault, assess the community’s response to new sexual policies and provide more preventative education and training. They also suggest that the administration evaluate and finalize the interim sexual misconduct policy, hire a hearing coordinator to implement the policy and streamline the investigative process to ensure each case is conducted fairly and impartially.

Despite Smith and Gomez’s mandate to provide a neutral assessment of the college’s compliance with Title IX law, both students and faculty have said the report is biased and inadequate.

At the Pepper Hamilton town hall meeting last Tuesday, Diplomacy and World Affairs professor Movinidri Reddy expressed frustration that the lawyers took 18 months to produce what she feels is a lackluster report.

“Many of us on the faculty—and I think many students as well—were really waiting for the Pepper Hamilton report,” Reddy said. “We waited for it because we thought it was going to be an audit of what went on in the last two years … and what we find is that the report doesn’t do that … It’s biased, it’s one-sided, and it doesn’t exactly speak to the issues.”

Smith and Gomez did not respond to questions regarding bias in their report.

Their research into Occidental’s practices began with a period of community engagement, an assessment of past case samples and an overall review of college policy and procedure for sexual assault cases. In 2013, Smith and Gomez visited the campus four times to get input from students, faculty and staff. In their report, Smith and Gomez say that they reached out to the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC), but that faculty advisors would not permit the lawyers to meet with student survivors.

However, politics professor Caroline Heldman, one of OSAC’s faculty advisers, claims that it was Smith and Gomez who refused to meet with survivors as a part of their investigation.

“The claim that OSAC ‘faculty advisors’ would not let Smith and Gomez talk to student survivors is a blatant lie,” Heldman said via email.

Rachel Buckner (senior) noted that OSAC reached out to the lawyers three separate times, but never received a response from them.

“There was a deep openness, from what I understand, of OSAC members to work with those working on the report,” Buckner said.

Other members of the faculty have criticized the report as vilifying OSAC and other campus activists, but President Jonathan Veitch denied allegations of bias in the report.

“I respectfully disagree that it paints the activists on campus in a negative light,” Veitch said at the Pepper Hamilton town hall meeting. “I think it points to a problem we’ve had of having difficult discussions on important issues.”

At the same town hall meeting, Veitch highlighted Smith and Gomez’s future recommendations as the most important portions of the report.

“The report is illuminating, frustrating and long-winded,” Veitch said. “It is a partial report—the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a conversation.”

Several faculty, however, found the report’s recommendations unhelpful. Critical Theory & Social Justice professor Mary Christianakis was concerned about the lack of a concrete definition of consent and clearly defined sanctions for sexual misconduct.

In light of these criticisms, Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones explained that the findings of the Pepper Hamilton report will be only one of many factors that will influence the final sexual assault policy.

“I view the Pepper Hamilton report and its recommendations as an additional resource and not a blueprint for our future,” Jones said in an email to Occidental faculty, staff and administrators.