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Institutional Betrayal And Safety At UNM

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There’s expectation in the air when students go off to college—an expectation of independence and learning—and even safety. But for many people on campuses around the country who experience sexual assault or harassment, the illusion of safety can fall away. Now, the federal government has begun looking at why.

The Department of Justicescrutinized the state’s flagship university and dredged up fumbled investigations, a perceived culture of indifference and a blame-the-victim mentality.  

UNM is one of only two universities in the country that have been investigated by the DOJ for the way they handle sexual assault and harassment. A report released this spring spotlights flaws in every corner of UNM’s system—from confusing rules, to overlooked witnesses and evidence, to inconsequential punishments.

Carly Smith, a researcher at Yale, said all of that adds up to what’s called institutional betrayal. "It’s kind of like a chronic stressor," she said. "It’s a chronic reminder that you’re not necessarily safe." Institutional betrayal happens when there’s an expectation of safety, but trauma isn’t prevented, and then the response is weak.

"Being under that type of chronic stress really reliably causes health problems for pretty much any human," Smith said, and not just physical ailments but depression and anxiety, too. That can be a big hit to a student’s ability to go to class or get a degree. 

Smith has being doing research on institutional betrayal since 2010, and thousands of people have filled out her questionnaires. She read the DOJ report on UNM that detailed what students had to go through to get their sexual assault complaints taken seriously.  "They would be difficult for a student who had experienced no trauma, who was not under an unusual amount of stress, who was not walking around campus feeling frightened," she said.

Then there’s the report’s description of poor training for faculty and staff about sexual assault. Smith said that’s the kind of thing that unintentionally leads to an environment where institutional betrayal is more likely. "My guess is UNM was not out to be like, 'Let’s really on purpose create a situation where students have difficulty reporting sexual assault.' "

UNM President Robert Frank said if you looked closely at any university in the country, you'd see something similar. "I don’t think UNM mishandles it any worse than any other university does," he said. "A few years ago we weren’t on top of our game and weren’t doing it as well. I think we’ve improved our game.

Frank said he wishes the Department of Justice would have looked at all of the improvements the university made in the last year or so. UNM revised policies, created an advocacy center and hired more staff. "We just have to convey to parents and to the students that want to come here that we’re not the university that got described there," he said. "And that’s why I said we are not a hostile campus. We’ve made big big commitments. We’re way beyond that."

In the DOJ's report, many students said they would never recommend filing a sexual assault complaint with UNM's Office of Equal Opportunity to anyone else, and if they could do it all over again, they wouldn't have gone through the process. KUNM asked Frank if he was concerned that this could deter students from reporting sexual misconduct. "Well, I’m ambivalent about it," he said. "I’m not a huge fan of what the Department of Justice has unleashed on universities in America. I don’t think their system is a very sophisticated system for understanding sexual assault and sexual harassment."

People told federal investigators they were traumatized by UNM’s reporting process, but Heather Cowan, who oversees UNM’s administrative investigators, said she isn’t sure why. "You know, I have empathy certainly," she said. "Having not been through the process myself, right, I can’t really say what about the process, you know, causes people to really think that or feel that way."

Cowan said her office aims to be thorough and neutral, and that it can be hard for students who say they’ve been assaulted or harassed to have their stories challenged. "Part of the process is that you hear the other person’s version of events, which is usually different from your own," she said. "So I think that by itself is traumatizing."

She said the DOJ only spoke with people who alleged assault or harassment and who felt betrayed by UNM, and that may have colored the results of the report. "Some of the stuff that of course I don’t agree with DOJ, like I’m still sitting with it with myself, because I don’t want to automatically blow off criticism or something that’s going to cause us to change."

Cowan said she doesn’t want to ignore anything that would help UNM improve its response just because right now she doesn’t agree with all of what’s in the DOJ’s report. 

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.