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story | Kanako Sugawara, Managing Editor
About a month ago, I had a conflict with a staff member of Yale-NUS College. To protect the privacy of everyone involved, I unfortunately will not be able to go into detail about what happened. One issue that I faced, other than the fact that it was and remains emotionally draining, was that I was at a loss as to how to deal with this incident.
Throughout the past few weeks, a lot has been discussed about how the senior administration should be held more accountable for issues spanning from the mental health climate to sexual misconduct policies, but an issue that has not garnered as much attention is the difficulty of holding individual faculty and staff members accountable for inappropriate behavior. After the incident I faced, my first instinct was to fill out the Yale-NUS Incident Reporting Form, but found out that this form applies largely for conflicts between students, and not between students and staff or faculty members.
Ultimately, after an extensive discussion with a staff member whom I trusted, I decided to go directly to the Dean of Students Christopher Bridges to discuss this issue. Unfortunately, this choice also eliminated any chance I had at anonymity. Anonymity is critical as in many cases involving students and staff or faculty members (including my own case), the latter hold considerable power over us. Some have control over our academic life, some over our residential life, and some even have control over both.
This is the biggest reason why a form similar to the student-to-student Yale-NUS Incident Reporting Form needs to exist to report student-to-faculty conflicts as well. One of the reasons why I was so nervous to bring this up with the higher administration was because of the potential long-term repercussions that I could face. I realized that the best I could hope for would be a couple of weeks of awkward silence if I encountered that individual on campus. But the worst case scenario would be the loss of support from a faculty member integral to my campus life.
Being in a small community such as Yale-NUS is a double edged sword; as a student, I have wonderful opportunities to interact with faculty and the administration far beyond a professional level. This is especially true for faculty and staff members who live on campus, as we get to see them as people outside of their professions—as mothers, fathers, and in many cases, loving dog owners.
At the same time, these deep interactions also make it very difficult to step up and take action in the event of a conflict, because it feels like I could burn down personal bridges of connections and necessary support. What if I need a favor from this person in a year’s time? What if I need this person’s approval to do something later on? It also does not help that in many cases at Yale-NUS, one individual (and not an office of people) can be in charge of certain decision-making processes.
After my meeting with Mr. Bridges, I was given three choices: first, to have a mediated conversation with him and the individual in question; second, to have Mr. Bridges speak privately to that individual; or third, to file a report to Human Resources (HR). Although many of us are aware of what to do in the case of a student-to-student conflict, this was the first time I had been informed of the choices I was to be given in the case of a faculty/staff-to-student conflict. I didn’t even know a HR department existed in Yale-NUS.
The first option, which was to have a mediated, but not reprimandatory discussion, was highly encouraged. However, I had already spoken to this individual about their actions before my meeting with Mr. Bridges, and they had completely denied any wrongdoing. This led me to believe that no matter how well this meeting was mediated, there was a very real risk that my case could be swept under the rug. Although it is very difficult to substantiate this fear without divulging any details of the conflict, I was very afraid that it would simply be a conversation where both of us would talk about our respective stances regarding the conflict, and be forced to reach a superficial level of agreement.
I also could not help but feel a disadvantage in a mediated conversation with two significantly older, more educated employees of the college. While Mr. Bridges assured me of fairness and equality, I was ultimately going into a discussion with two members of staff, with no one of a similar position at my side. Thus, I propose that in the case of a mediated discussion, someone who is closer in age, perhaps a Dean’s Fellow or a student representative, also be there to provide support to the student.
In the case of my second option, which was to have Mr. Bridges talk to the individual in question without my presence, my doubts were quite straightforward: I would not know what he would say to this individual. This is understandable, as he would not divulge any details to the other individual in question of what I had discussed with him as well. But would he say something that I wanted him to say? Would he encourage the individual to do something I wanted them to do? I would not be able to know. I could only hope for the best.
My third option was to go to HR. However, the process of sending in a report to HR is highly opaque. If I chose this option, I would have to learn the process of filing a report to HR from scratch, and even then an outcome would not be guaranteed. Ultimately, this was all for naught as Mr. Bridges unilaterally spoke to HR, and subsequently informed me that this was no longer an option as HR had decided that the case should not be escalated to that stage.
Our college severely lacks an accessible mechanism for students to report staff or faculty members for inappropriate behavior. We need one: one that is taught to us from Orientation, and one that considers the students’ need for protection from authority. I personally hope that this process never has to be used, and we should try to prevent such conflicts from arising in the first place by building a healthy community. But in reality, wishing and hoping for a perfect campus with no conflicts between faculty or staff with students is neither enough nor realistic. There needs to be a more student-friendly, transparent system for not only student-to-student behavior, but also faculty/staff-to-student behavior as well.