TUGSA adds sexual harassment officer position

The student leader is compiling on- and off-campus resource lists for graduate student survivors.

Ariel Natalo-Lifton is the first sexual harassment officer for the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association. | DYLAN LONG / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When Ariel Natalo-Lifton was stalked as a graduate student at Temple University, no one told her about the resources available to her. 

“I could have gone and gotten an escort to and from my bus. …I could have gotten extensions on assignments,” said Natalo-Lifton, a fourth-year history Ph.D. candidate. “I didn’t sleep for a week because I was terrified [and] I had no idea any of that existed.”

Natalo-Lifton now serves as the first sexual harassment officer for the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association. Her role is to educate and connect graduate students with help centers at and outside of Temple. As a survivor of sexual assault and stalking, she is passionate about assisting survivors. The position is new as of Fall 2018.

“We realized that the graduate students didn’t know anything about Title IX,” Natalo-Lifton said. “They didn’t know anything about the process to go about reporting any problems with harassment or sexual assault both within Temple and outside of Temple.”

TUGSA advocates for graduate students employed as teaching and research assistants at Temple. The union negotiates terms with the university every four years through a collective bargaining effort in which it advocates for fair wages and work environments.    

Ethan Ake-Little, a former TUGSA president and current urban education Ph.D. candidate, drafted Natalo-Lifton’s position in 2017 for the 2018 bargaining agreement.

The need for the position was intensified by the #MeToo movement and a 2014 Department of Education report that cited Temple as one of 55 higher education institutions under investigation for violating federal law through insufficient handling of sexual assault and harassment cases, Ake-Little said. 

Ake-Little and others met in a focus group to discuss creating a sexual harassment position. The group discussed unchecked problems like inappropriate professor-student relationships and undergraduate students harassing their graduate teaching assistants. 

A graduate student experiencing harassment may hesitate to seek help due to unlevel power dynamics in small departments or fear of retaliation, Ake-Little and Natalo-Lifton said. 

“What becomes tricky for graduate students is that there’s nowhere to complain because the person who you would complain to is essentially your employer,” Ake-Little said. “Even if you go to the department level, there is the problem of what I call ‘limited population.’ There’s only so many of you in the department, so it’s very hard to be anonymous.”

Prior to this semester, when a graduate student came forward with allegations, the department chair often handled the situation, Ake-Little said. This solved immediate issues like grades and who was in charge of a student’s work, but not the long term issue — that the graduate student was still in the same five- to 10-person department as their aggressor, he added. As a result, some survivors saw the process as more burdensome than beneficial.

“Nobody’s going to jeopardize their funding or their situation to rat out or complain on a professor or an adviser or someone,” Ake-Little said. “You could lose a lot.”

The new officer position separates the process by which the accuser and the accused have to meet so early in the process by working directly with graduate students who express concerns and complaints, he added. 

Title IX coordinator Andrea Seiss handles student-to-student allegations and investigations, and Temple’s Equal Opportunity Compliance office deals with investigations on allegations involving professors or administrators.

Seiss attended TUGSA’s focus group before it formed the new position.

“Hearing that a lot of [graduate students] felt that they needed some more information, that they wanted to make sure that they knew about the resources and they wanted to make sure that they were doing what they needed to do for the students that might come to them, said to us, ‘OK, we clearly need to be doing more in this area,’” Seiss said.

Seiss is working with Natalo-Lifton to increase on-campus awareness for the new position and discussing the future of the role. 

While the role is an improvement from past years, the amount of staffing and resources to support survivors is still too small, Natalo-Lifton said. For Temple’s approximate 30,000 undergraduates and about 10,000 graduate students, there are only two Tuttleman counselors who work specifically with survivors of sexual assault, as part of the Sexual Assault Counseling and Education Unit. 

“About a quarter of women experience sexual assault in their lives and we have two people here at Temple,” Natalo-Lifton said. “For the number of students we have here at Temple, there aren’t enough and it isn’t enough of a priority.”

For these reasons, Natalo-Lifton is working to compile a comprehensive list of Philadelphia resources graduate students can use for help, but due to limited funding, she is only able to accomplish so much. TUGSA pays for Natalo-Lifton’s work, which is capped at five hours per week. 

When the position was initially drafted, TUGSA proposed Temple should provide funding. The university declined, TUGSA leaders said.

“Temple provides ombudspersons and other resources to graduate students seeking help with sexual harassment issues,” wrote university spokesperson Ray Betzner in a statement. “We also made sure TUGSA was aware of these resources during the contract negotiations.”

For TUGSA, however, the existing resources were not enough.

“We can be a resource when the university won’t be,” said Evan Kassof, TUGSA’s vice president and a third-year music Ph.D. student. “If this university had Bill Cosby on the board of directors [and] they can’t deal with taking a lead on sexual harassment, that’s an issue.” 

“In the next four years, we’ll collect our own data, we’ll investigate our own process,” Ake-Little said. “Whoever comes back to the table in 2022 will be able to make a more evidence-based and more forceful request for proposal for what they want.”

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