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UA becomes Partner Network Organization to help fight sexual harassment in academia

Elijah Bia

Old Main, blocked off to allow landscape workers to operate. Taken on Aug. 10, 2020, off of the UA Mall.

The University of Arizona is now one of 60 college institutions to become a Partner Network Organization to combat and prevent sexual harassment in higher education, the UA announced on Feb. 26.

The UA’s partnership with the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education, which is supported by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, hopes to raise awareness about sexual harassment, its consequences and how to address and prevent it, according to a UA news release. 

By becoming a Partner Network Organization, the UA will utilize policies that prevent sexual harassment, share a research agenda with other institutions in the network and standardize a “measurement system to track progress on addressing sexual harassment in higher education,” the news release said.

As a part of the collaboration, Kathleen Melde, the Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs and Inclusion in the College of Engineering, will serve as the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Faculty Fellow and liaison between the UA and the Action Collaborative Partner Network.

“I’m going to be representing the college and our participation in the Action Collaborative and the Partner Network by going to some conferences and picking up some information and then bringing it back to the team,” Melde said. “We do have these offices that are working very well here already in the university, but maybe having a conversation with our partners and finding out what those best practices are that are effective is very helpful.”

According to Melde’s fellow collaborator in the Partner Network and UA vice provost for faculty affairs, Andrea Romero, there’s no better person than Melde to represent the UA in the Partner Network.

“She’s fantastic. She really wants to make a difference, and she’s really committed to making sure that we are doing the best we can as an institution and preventing sexual harassment,” Romero said. “She has a lot of great ideas and she’s going to be a wonderful representative of the U of A to the national group. I know she’s going to bring a lot of ideas back to us so that we can, you know, do the best possible job we can here at the U of A.”

As a faculty fellow, Melde will be working closely with the UA’s Office of Institutional Equity, the Division of Human Resources, Faculty Affairs and the Consortium on Gender-Based Violence in regularly scheduled meetings with each office, according to the news release.

Melde plans to focus her work on sexual harassment prevention, breaking down the fears of retaliation when reporting harassment and making information for help easily accessible.

“There is a fear of retaliation and that is a strong, personal fear. So with this network and having it signed by Dr. [Robert] Robbins, we want to break down those barriers for reporting and try to eliminate the barriers that, you know, fuel the fear of retaliation,” Melde said.

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According to a 2018 report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “between 20 and 50% of women students and more than 50% percent of women faculty and staff experienced sexually harassing behavior while in academia.”

One of the biggest challenges, Melde says, is getting information about sexual harassment prevention out in the community. To help distribute accurate information within the UA, Melde hopes to compose a handbook with sexual harassment policies and resources to hand out to the various colleges on campus, starting with a test run in the College of Engineering.

For now, students and faculty can visit the UA’s Faculty Affairs website to read a commitment statement written by Romero and Melde. The commitment statement ensures that the UA is committed to “building a safe and inclusive culture and is pleased to advance our ongoing efforts to prevent and effectively respond to sexual harassment through the Partner Network.”

Romero says that joining the Action Collaborative was brought to her attention in the spring of 2019 by Melde, but the Action Collaborative wasn’t accepting new institutions at that time. However, that changed last fall when they finally reached out to Romero and told her they were expanding the network and would love for the UA to join.

“I’m really hoping that it helps do an even better job at preventing sexual harassment than ever before,” Romero said. “I think we’ve always been committed to it, but I think by being participants with this group, not only do we contribute to generating new knowledge with the group that will help others, but we’re going to learn from them too, and it’ll give us like the most updated current information on best practices on a regular basis. So I think that’s really going to help improve the quality of what we do and how we do it.”

Currently, the UA’s sexual harassment policies align with the federal civil rights law, Title IX, which aims to prevent, address and resolve sexual harassment and violence complaints in schools.

As a Partner Network Organization, the UA will continue to follow Title IX policies but utilize the research and resources from the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education to continue bringing awareness and prevention resources on sexual harassment in an academic setting.

“The University of Arizona really is committed to preventing sexual harassment that we’re taking the time and energy to participate in the Partner Network to share what we’re learning and to learn from others so we can do the best job possible,” Romero said.

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