Is PSU afraid of survivors?

June 26, 2018

Camille White-Avian reports from Portland on a campus struggle to demand action from university administrators after multiple reports of sexual assault and abuse.

PORTLAND STATE University (PSU) has shown that it will protect sexual predators while allowing a hostile atmosphere for survivors and populations vulnerable to sexual violence to thrive on campus — so students are making their voices heard.

After months of inaction by administrators in response to reports of sexual abuse from three women, including one student, on April 30, eight students and seven community members entered the class of a student accused of committing sexual assault, publicly confronting him with the allegations.

The professor facilitating the class called armed campus police although the group dispersed before the officers arrived. However, several student protesters were identified to the administration for participating in the disruption.

This time, PSU administrators did respond — sending letters to four students that accused them of violations of campus conduct rules and summoned them to disciplinary hearings. Three of the students have been subjected to disciplinary actions — they were given probation until May 1 of next year, were forced to write a so-called reflection paper and have to perform 25 hours of community service.

Standing up against sexual assault at Portland State University
Standing up against sexual assault at Portland State University (Michael Mullinax | SW)

By contrast, the accused sexual abuser was allowed to graduate. The administration has not sanctioned him in any way.

PSU officials had six months to act on the reports made by the women, but they didn’t even open a genuine investigation, much less take any action. Thus, the survivor who was a student had to endure sharing the campus with their abuser. Two of the victims reported that the abuser spit at them while they were passing between classes.

Allowing this is a clear violation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title IX has been regularly interpreted by the courts to require colleges and universities to provide equal opportunity education for sexual assault survivors, and the U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that schools must respond responsibly to reports of sexual assault. PSU has refused to take responsibility for the environment it has cultivated.

TESS CARTER is one of several survivors who have come forward to the university. Although she isn’t a student, she took it upon herself to report her abuser to PSU administrators.

What you can do

Sign a petition calling on Portland State University to stop protecting a serial rapist.

Carter worked with the PSU Student Union to put on a string of actions, spread over three weeks beginning on May 29, with the aim of raising awareness within the PSU community that at least one predator was attending classes. Students also demanded the disciplinary actions against the students who participated in the April 30 protest be dropped.

By not taking any action when there is specific and multiple reports about the same student, the administration is putting other vulnerable students at risk for sexual abuse.

As Carter explained to Oregon Public Broadcasting: “PSU had us in for an interview so we could discuss [the incident], and then we heard nothing from them. The university has failed women, the university has failed its students, the university has failed men and non-men — it has failed literally everybody.”

Ironically, three years ago, the PSU Board of Trustees voted to arm campus security, and one of the justifications was that this would help in cases of sexual assault.

Instead, it appears that armed campus security officers are deployed only as a means of intimidating student activists and survivors when they publicly share their stories. PSU security officers have been present at every one of the survivor-led actions, as well as barging in during a meeting between Tess Carter, the student survivor, the Dean of Student Life and the Title IX coordinator.

Apparently, PSU administrators are so scared of survivors that they need armed security personnel to protect them during meetings.

This meeting involving Carter and the student survivor was only set up by the school after the protest actions, calls from supporters and petition campaigns. If not for the pressure applied by student activists, survivors and allies, PSU might have gotten away with completely ignoring the situation until it went away — just like so many other institutions shamefully do.

IT’S NOT as if the issue is new to PSU.

Four years ago, another student collected over 100,000 signatures for an online petition demanding that PSU abide by Title IX, after a “dear friend was violently raped by a Portland State University student on Portland State University campus in the university’s housing.”

Also four years ago, Go Local PDX ran a story about another young woman who said that PSU failed to properly investigate her report of being raped.

“It was hard to know what the school’s agenda was,” the victim told Go Local PDX. “It didn’t feel like the school was really on my side at all. It was hard for me to understand. I thought that I did what I was supposed to do and it ended up being a much more difficult process.”

Despite being an educational institution, PSU doesn’t seem to be capable of learning from its mistakes. In fact, it is repeating them. Three women came forward to say that they were repeatedly abused by the same PSU student. Yet the university didn’t act.

PSU remains deeply marked with the imprint of sexism. Acting as if women are not to be trusted in their decisions or experiences, questioning their motives, getting angry with victims for bringing forward their stories, demanding victims explain their trauma over and over — all these are the sickening norms in capitalist society.

Socialists stand completely with the women brave enough to speak up, despite the material and social structures that keep them and all victims of sexual violence suffering in silence. The powers that be would rather that victims stay victims, choking on the trauma they suffered in isolation.

Meanwhile, PSU administrators are actively punishing three students who took it upon themselves to notify their peers and the community about a serial rapist. Survivors, faculty, staff, students, alumni and anyone associated with PSU deserves better.

“Rapists don’t deserve diplomas” has been a favorite chant of protesters during this campaign. Though some argue that withholding a degree is too serious a consequence, there must be some action. For PSU to conduct an investigation and revoke his diploma is the least they can do.

Administration officials have repeatedly insisted that it is a matter of law that they share information about proceedings regarding sexual assault. But this is an excuse for doing nothing and then pretending they can’t talk about it.

PSU appears to want to sidestep accountability while capitalizing on the idea that it is a progressive institution. Administrators can’t have it both ways. They can either listen to sexual violence survivors — which means acting immediately on serious allegations presented multiple times over the last six months — or they can continue to foster a fertile hunting ground for rapists.

Michael Mullinax contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives