URBANA — A proposal calling on the University of Illinois to publicly release data on sexual-misconduct cases has been pushed back another month so that a committee recommending major changes in UI policies can review it first.
Meanwhile, Provost Andreas Cangellaris said Monday he has reviewed that committee’s sweeping recommendations and said they will be made public soon, even as students are demanding a stronger voice in the deliberations.
“Sexual misconduct is a poison lethal to the human spirit. This is why we must work as a community to prevent it from occurring on this campus,” he said, urging senators to work with administrators to improve the campus climate.
Last month, at the first senate meeting of the semester, UI graduate student and lecturer John Bambenek called on the senate to formally ask the chancellor for five years of aggregate numbers on complaints about sexual assault, misconduct or harassment, as well as their outcomes, from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2019.
Bambenek, who has submitted numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for similar data, said he wanted to get an idea about the scope of the problem highlighted in media reports over the last year.
He subsequently filed a lawsuit against the UI Board of Trustees on Sept. 23 alleging it violated public-records laws by withholding reports dating back to 2014.
His senate proposal appeared to have strong support, and Chancellor Robert Jones said later he would provide information requested as long as it protected individuals’ privacy. But senators agreed to forward Bambenek’s resolution to the sexual-harassment panel and the Senate Executive Committee for coordination.
Rather than place it on the Oct. 14 senate agenda, the Senate Executive Committee on Monday decided to hold off for more review, and Bambenek agreed.
Executive committee Chairman Rob Kar, a law professor who is also chairing the sexual-harassment committee, said he wanted input from that panel to ensure the proposals are consistent.
Kar said later that he wants to make sure the senate has the information it needs to "play the strongest and most effective role in any forthcoming policy reforms," adding, "I think everyone is in agreement here."
Bambenek’s resolution called for yearly data on complaints, investigations, terminations, confidentiality agreements, severance payments and other outcomes, to help inform the senate’s decisions on whatever comes out of the sexual harassment committee’s recommendations. He called it merely a “glorified spreadsheet.”
Engineering Professor John Dallesasse, vice chair of the SEC, said transparency is important but argued that the resolution should be deferred so it didn’t derail the committee’s upcoming report, which “has the potential to pull the whole organization forward in a substantive and meaningful way.”
Kar said the committee had worked hard to build consensus to make sure “every concern is addressed” and has strong support from the chancellor and provost.
“Right now I feel like we have a lot of collective will from every part of the institution to address this problem,” he said.
Other senators agreed but urged Kar to report back to the senate on why it won’t be on the agenda.
“This is an item of current interest,” said journalism Professor Eric Meyer.
Cangellaris said the sexual harassment committee produced a comprehensive set of recommendations on discipline and other policies related to sexual misconduct, praising Kar’s efforts to hear “all viewpoints” and build unanimous support for the final draft.
The new procedures will allow the UI to respond to misconduct more quickly and with more tools, “including sanctions and other measures,” he said.
The campus plans to act promptly on the proposed changes once the relevant senate committees have had a chance to review them, he said.
The expanded policies will better explain the system to the public and convey that it is “intolerant of sexual harassment and misconduct,” he said.
He also highlighted the upcoming sexual harassment summit for department heads and other senior officers, saying the Oct. 16 event will feature “very candid conversations” about the topic with local and national experts. A panel of graduate students will also talk about their experiences.
Student Senator Susan Zhou asked why students generally weren’t invited or notified about the summit, since they are often the victims of faculty sexual misconduct.
Spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the event is open to the public but is geared toward senior administrators to help them make needed changes.
Zhou then suggested that students be allowed to provide input, and distributed a copy of a statement adopted last week by Illinois Student Government.
It called for more transparency from administrators about recent sexual misconduct cases where faculty members or academic staff members were allowed to remain on the job, continue drawing a salary or quietly leave the UI during or after investigations into their conduct.
The students praised the UI’s decision to stop using confidentiality agreements in those cases but said other measures are need. And they demanded “direct student input” on the pending revisions to sexual misconduct policies before they are adopted.
“The continued epidemic and concealment of sexual violence created by faculty and staff at the University of Illinois is deeply disturbing and highly alarming” and creates an unsafe campus environment, the statement said.
In his lawsuit, Bambenek said the university denied his recent public-records requests regarding sexual misconduct cases, including one that sought records from 2014 through June 30, 2019. It was called “unduly burdensome” because the campus kept only paper records prior to 2016.
Citing previous denials to media outlets, Bambenek said it represented “a pattern of activity to thwart the public’s right to know.”
In a statement, the UI took exception to some of Bambenek’s assertions and said it was committed to transparency and accountability.
“As is often the case, the University made numerous efforts to work with this requester to adjust the filings to make them less burdensome and more manageable,” it said.
It also questioned why Bambenek didn’t utilize the standard appeal process through the Illinois attorney general’s office.
Earlier this year, the attorney general’s office ruled that the UI had to release a report requested by News-Gazette Media about a case involving a UI police officer, which it had earlier withheld.