This post pairs with the post of the same date on my other blog, “The Immaculate Page.”
One reason of many that students don’t report professorial misconduct is that they don’t know much about policies in place at their institution that pertain to their situation. As noted in my blog post on language, the policy regarding “amorous relationships” between faculty or staff and students at my college, Davidson, is deeply buried in both tortuous wording and an unnecessarily complicated numbering / lettering system that borrows the worst practices from dense legal protocols.
Students are currently becoming increasingly aware of their rights involving the reporting of sexual assault within the student body. The web site “Know Your IX” is dedicated to raising students’ awareness of their rights if they are sexually assaulted by a member of the student body. They should also have ready knowledge about their entitlement to study in an environment characterized by trust and safety between faculty and students.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education carries the headline, “Another College-Access Issue: Financial-Aid Jargon,” and the sub-headline, “Should families really have to learn a new language to figure out how to pay for college?” The impenetrable language relating to financial aid at college owes to bureaucracy similar to that pervading institutional policy writing. In this case, the U. S. government is the chief culprit. But you can bet that lawyers are called upon constantly to consult on any such language, whether it concerns financial aid, an institution’s hiring and firing practices, or sexual harassment. You can also bet that those same lawyers are being hired to protect their clients’ interests. Therefore, in addition to making a lawsuit against a college as difficult to win as possible, the obfuscation of the policy itself is designed partly to ward away complaints. How can a student lodge a grievance if she doesn’t know where to find the policy, what the policy is, or even that a policy exists? A college whose harassment policy is thick and murky with words also works to preserve the institution’s much guarded reputation while also technically obeying the law.
The Chronicle’s article about the knotty language of financial aid focuses on Eric Johnson, a member of the Admissions staff at UNC-CH whose particular job is to demystify the jargon of financial aid so that anyone and everyone can understand it. “Language is an access issue,” Johnson is quoted as saying. “We know this intellectually in academia, but struggle to put it into practice.” He adds that legalistic convolution sends “a clear message to certain groups of people that this,” by which he means college, “is not for you.” In parallel, when the rights of students to expect trust in their learning environment, and to register a complaint should that trust be violated, are embedded in wording that defies comprehension and hidden deep within a long roster of college policies, the message amounts to this: “Don’t even think about reporting.”