‘I’ve reached out numerous times’: Student leaders disappointed with University communication on campus sexual violence


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt students embrace during a protest against sexual violence outside of the Cathedral of Learning in October.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

After a meeting between student leaders and Dean of Students Carla Panzella about sexual violence at Pitt, Megan Sharkey said she has mixed emotions.

“It was promising, but also I’m still very frustrated with the lack of follow-up and the lack of prioritization that the Dean has shown since the meeting, because I’ve literally heard nothing about any of the changes being made since,” Sharkey said. 

After months of voicing their concerns to administrators in response to a reported sexual assault in the Cathedral of Learning in early October, student leaders told The Pitt News they feel as though they can communicate with the University about their concerns openly, but aren’t getting open communication back from the University on the progress it has made.

Panzella hosted the meeting at the end of October in response to student demands to improve the University’s sexual violence response and prevention programs. At the time, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the renewed sense of urgency around sexual assault “increase[d] our resolve to move forward” and that “actionable and useful information is a necessary but not sufficient condition” without corresponding progress.

Sharkey, the vice president of the Take Back the Night club, attended Panzella’s meeting alongside student representatives from Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education, Planned Parenthood Generation Action, Student Government Board, Project Healing Sideways, Girl Up and more. Karin Asher, the assistant dean of student engagement and professional development, also attended the meeting and took notes. 

Students raised a variety of concerns, according to the minutes, including University transparency, survivor resources, prevention education programs, crime alerts and fraternity and sorority life. They also posed a variety of solutions such as enhancing existing relationships with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, using trigger warnings in crime alerts, hosting a second town hall with higher-up administrators on the panel and changing the structure of first-year prevention education. 

Student leaders also criticized the Oct. 19 town hall hosted by Student Affairs, the SGB, OEDI and Pitt Police. Alexa Pierce, the president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action, said she was unable to attend the student leaders meeting but would like to see Pitt host another town hall with a new panel. 

“A lot of students weren’t getting their questions answered by the right people, or they were just being thrown resources that they already knew about that weren’t working, and that’s what they had issues with,” Pierce said. “But at the same time, an open forum like that, where students are allowed to criticize University and be open and vocal about that, is a good thing too.”

After the meeting, email communications between attendee Katie Emmert and Panzella show a continual effort by Emmert, a member of SGB and a co-writer of an open letter to Pitt on equitable sexual violence prevention, to initiate further conversation with Panzella. Emmert, who sought updates on how Panzella was turning students’ concerns into action, said she is frustrated by what she sees as a lack of initiative from the Dean. 

“I’ve reached out numerous times,” Emmert said. “Why am I the one who has to reach out? Like, the University could easily make a statement on what progress they’re making.”

Emmert emailed Panzella and Asher on Oct. 26, the day after the meeting, to request a copy of the meeting notes taken by Asher. Asher told her Panzella would send the notes early the next week. The following Monday morning, Oct. 31, Emmert thanked Asher for her response and said she looked forward to reading the meeting notes. Asher did not respond. By Nov. 3, students still had not received the meeting notes, so Emmert emailed Panzella and Asher again to request a copy. Finally, Panzella sent students the meeting notes alongside a joint message from herself and Asher on Nov. 4. 

In that message, Panzella and Asher assured students updates would come in the following weeks. 

“There is much to review and move forward and work to do so is underway,” Panzella and Asher wrote. “We look forward to providing you with an update in a few weeks as well as bringing folks from these areas to meet with you directly as we discussed.”

Sharkey and Pierce each said they did not receive any communication or updates from Panzella or Asher between the Nov. 4 message and Dec. 4. 

Emmert emailed Asher and Panzella on Nov. 17 asking to schedule a follow-up meeting with students to discuss progress and action plans, as she said Panzella agreed to at the Oct. 25 meeting. The next day, Asher responded and said Student Affairs was “working to identify dates for a next meeting, and targeting the week of Dec. 5 … Please stay tuned for a meeting invitation coming shortly after the [Thanksgiving] break.” 

As of Sunday, Dec. 4, neither Panzella nor Asher had reached out to students to schedule this follow-up meeting, according to Sharkey, Pierce and Emmert. Emmert said she planned to email Panzella again to schedule the meeting, but felt upset by Panzella and Asher’s inability to commit to a date. 

“It’s frustrating to hear that they’re shooting for this week, because just create, like, a date and a time, set a date and time,” Emmert said. “It just seems like a tactic to delay any sort of progress.”

Panzella said in a written statement on Dec. 8 that a follow-up meeting has been scheduled.

“Both offices [the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Student Affairs] are actively working on their action items,” Panzella said. “A follow-up meeting with the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as well as Student Affairs and students has been scheduled to share more information on work now underway and to identify direct contacts.” 

Following the sexual assault inside the Cathedral, which vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion Clyde Pickett said in an email to the Inclusion Network in November “shined a light on some of [the] challenges our university community faces around sexual misconduct,” the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX plans to hire a new full-time director position and an additional outreach and response specialist. According to the OEDI website, Inclusion Network members include DEI professionals and volunteers, though faculty, staff and students may apply to join the network

However, Sharkey said this was not an effective way to communicate the changes with students. In fact, Sharkey learned about the changes not through the University, but through The Women’s Law Project, a local advocacy nonprofit. 

“I thought that was something that students would want to see, is that they’re making proactive changes,” Sharkey said. “That level of transparency, I feel like, is something that should be addressed by Pitt and improved upon by Pitt … I don’t know why that’s something that’s sent to outside organizations and not the student body and staff that are directly affected by it.” 

Pickett said the Inclusion Network allows OEDI to communicate with the University at the broadest level. He said he didn’t know how many students are a part of the Inclusion Network. Pickett also said the network is not the only way the University has shared information about the Title IX changes with students, who do not respond well to email communications.

 “We’ve heard loud and clear from students that typically email is not the best way to share information with them,” Pickett said. “They have asked us to share the information in different ways, and so we did share the information with SGB, and we work, of course, with our colleagues in Student Affairs to help us distribute information directly to different stakeholder groups.”

When asked what proactive actions or plans the University has put into place since the heightened awareness that came with October, Pickett pointed out that OEDI has “long been committed to this work” and will continue to put effort into listening to students. For example, Pickett said he held a luncheon with SAFE Peer Educators the week after Thanksgiving to hear their ideas and concerns. 

“One of the ways the University is taking action is to listen and continue to amplify efforts and where appropriate to make adjustments,” Pickett said. “If we need to expand the number of programs, which we’re working proactively to do, we will do so and we will continue to do so and prioritize this at the highest priority of the University.”

A Pitt student searching for resources regarding sexual assault might start with the web page for University’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office, which operates within OEDI — however, the office has not updated several of these online resources in months or sometimes years. For example, the Upcoming Trainings and Events page lists only events held during the Spring 2022 semester, the Meet the SAFE Peer Educators and Peer Survivor Support Network Member Bios pages contain student bios from one or two years ago, and the office has only shared news articles from April 2019 to June 2021 under the Prevention in the News tab. 

These websites have gone without updates because OEDI did not have any communications professionals until three weeks ago, an unnamed University spokesperson said in a statement, leaving OEDI staff to update web pages themselves on top of other responsibilities. The spokesperson said OEDI recently hired a communications manager, and a thorough review of OEDI websites is in the early stages. 

Sharkey said she knows about more resources and programs at Pitt because of her active involvement in on-campus advocacy. But between the University hesitating to share specific steps it has taken with students and outdated resources on Pitt’s website, the average student might not have access to all the same information. 

“If I wasn’t in Take Back the Night as VP and, like, had the opportunity to meet with the Dean or, like, be involved in the Sexual Citizen programs or anything like that, I would not know about half the stuff that’s going on, unless I really dug into it,” Sharkey said.

This story has been updated to reflect the full list of organizations that hosted the Oct. 19 town hall and Karin Asher’s updated job title.