Review: Sex hurts comm. department


A recent review of Pitt’s communication department describes an atmosphere in which “senior… A recent review of Pitt’s communication department describes an atmosphere in which “senior faculty routinely and repeatedly have engaged in consensual sexual relationships with graduate students.”

And one male source within the department, who wished to remain anonymous, said that an effort is underway to silence people about the report’s findings.

But the report also praises the department, calling it “healthy … by virtually any relevant criterion.”

A male faculty member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was “surprised” by the report. The person remarked that the juxtaposition of praise and criticism is “confusing,” especially since he was unaware of both the activity described in the report, and of any attempt by those within the department to silence others.

Pitt has responded to the report by calling in graduate students to speak with legal counsel about their relationships with faculty and other members of the department. This angered one female graduate student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I don’t understand how the University can do this,” she said. “This is a debacle. It’s a witch-hunt. This isn’t an environment that’s hostile towards women. I think a couple of disgruntled people are blowing this out of proportion.”

“I talk to faculty and graduate students all the time,” she continued. “We’re talking about wonderful people, here, who have dedicated their lives to improving the department and the lives of students. I love this department — this is my family. This department doesn’t deserve this.”

The report, an external review conducted by three professors from outside universities with high-profile communication programs, is a regular and voluntary process, designed to give guidelines for improving a given department.

Department Chair John Lyne decline to comment on the review, saying that it was inappropriate to publicly discuss a confidential process, such as the external review system.

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences John Cooper also said that he couldn’t comment on what is understood to be a confidential process.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele released a statement, saying, “The office of general counsel received a copy of the report from the Dean, who commissioned it, and they are investigating certain matters raised in the report, and that work is ongoing. I would confirm that there is an external review process, but their report is confidential. When we receive a comprehensive report, a series of further internal steps need to be taken before we can form any conclusions based on that report.”

“Any report of that sort triggers an internal process,” Fedele continued. “These processes provide a context with which to read the document.”

A second female graduate student said that she wasn’t aware of any problems whatsoever.

“I have a great deal of respect for all of the faculty here,” she said. “This is a comfortable environment.”

The Pitt News obtained a copy of the document, which begins by giving high marks to many aspects of the communication department, from a source who refused to go on record.

“By virtually any relevant criterion, the department today is healthy and significantly improved since its last review,” the report reads. “It has a strong research culture … it is most known in the areas of rhetoric and public policy, rhetoric of science, and public argument … it has maintained a vigorous teaching culture … In these ways, it participates in the University’s vision of a community of scholars.”

The report also praises Lyne.

“The department chair, John Lyne, deserves considerable credit for the department’s strengthened position. Support for his leadership among his colleagues is broad and deep. His perceived fairness and his broadly consultative leadership style have contributed to significant healing of many of the rifts of the past.”

But the report also says, in a section titled “the faculty culture” on page 4, that the department “is a culture in which senior faculty routinely and repeatedly have engaged in consensual sexual relationships with graduate students, and this has been tolerated as usual and acceptable. The routine character of these relationships silences other faculty and graduate students. Female graduate students describe the culture as unsafe, that is, requiring alertness, maturity, and sophistication in handling approaches by faculty or coping with hostile acts (e.g., pornography left on desktop computers in graduate offices.)”

The report then goes on to name other issues stemming from the situation it describes.

“This environment contributes directly to the problem of promoting and tenuring women faculty and faculty of color. Resistance to diversity generally, and to admitting minority graduate students, are reportedly part of this culture, as is vocal espousal of views against diversity efforts in classes and as members of departmental committees. Allegedly, the handling of past cases of sexual harassment by the University’s legal counsel may have contributed to the poor departmental climate.”

The report also recommends actions to address the issues it raises.

“Strategies to avoid diversity may include constructing job descriptions to focus on areas in which there are few women or minority scholars, or to apply tenure and promotion criteria differentially. Deans should provide oversight so that standards are not applied differentially, especially in the cases of women or faculty of color.”

Even in this area, however, the report offers some positive comments.

“There is good evidence of progress in this area. Recent hires have enhanced the diversity of the faculty, and the new Director of Graduate Studies, Ron Zboray, is actively recruiting a diverse graduate student cohort. But further efforts are needed.”

The report also makes further recommendations.

“Our experience suggests that the full-time presence of senior women and minority faculty members in the department is an effective way to address these problems and also to provide role models for students. We recommend that Dean Cooper authorize hiring at a senior level (Associate or Full Professor) for the position now vacant, if the department can present a clear strategic rationale and description for the position and if the department can identify a qualified woman or African American candidate who wishes to make an offer. Such action would benefit the department in substantial ways while also rewarding active efforts to address questions of diversity and hostile climate.”

A male graduate student said that he wasn’t willing to characterize the general atmosphere of the department for fear of becoming enmeshed in an internal political discord.

One of the authors of the report, Northwestern University’s David Zarefsky, said that he did conduct the external review with two other professors during Feb. 18-20, 2004, but that he couldn’t comment on it due to its confidential nature.

Nobody has confirmed the contents of the report.