Sexual abuse: university lawyers ‘serve leadership, not victims’

Legal counsel describes how she was fired after pushing for investigation into misconduct at elite US institution

November 17, 2018
Denise Krepp
Source: Getty

US universities have been told that they need to rethink the role of their chief legal officers if they are to effectively address complaints about sexual abuse on campus.

Denise Krepp, who claimed that she was fired as the chief legal counsel overseeing the US Merchant Marine Academy after she pushed for an investigation into allegations of sexual assault, said her case illustrated the problematic relationship that exists within American universities: under US law, they are expected to handle initial reviews of sexual assault complaints, but are often too concerned with the impact on their own reputation.

In Ms Krepp’s case, she described how she got a breakthrough in her attempts to tackle reports of chronic sexual abuse at the academy – a highly selective academic institution in Kings Point, New York – when a whistleblower stepped forward with key details of assaults and rapes by students and faculty.

After sending a letter requesting an investigation, in the summer of 2011, Ms Krepp said that she was told that she did not have the authority to request an investigation by Ray LaHood, who was then the US secretary of transportation, who oversaw the US Maritime Administration.

She said that she was then fired. Ms Krepp, who outlined her experience at a conference organised by the National Academy of Sciences, told Times Higher Education that Mr LaHood had not wanted “bad press”. “The school was…the crown jewel of the department, and I was putting the crown jewel under a spotlight,” she said.

Mr LaHood, now a senior policy adviser at the legal services firm DLA Piper, did not respond to a request for comment.

The broader issue, Ms Krepp said, was that higher education institutions’ investigations of sexual abuse claims were often shaped by concerns about the impact on their reputation, not the interests of the victims.

“Their client is not the student victim, it’s not the faculty victim,” Ms Krepp said of university legal counsels. “It’s the school leadership.”

Ms Krepp said that alumni and parents who often donated to universities should put pressure on leaders to tackle the issue more effectively.

While hard data on abuse rates are notoriously elusive given the obstacles facing victims, the NAS has said that its best estimate was that 58 per cent of female university staff have experienced some type of sexual harassment. The rates are understood be higher among women in the sciences, and women of racial minorities.

At the NAS event, academics on a panel discounted traditional tactics such as employee training sessions and administrative policy reviews. It instead urged colleges to prioritise changes that end the power structures and culture that enable chronic abuse.

Such changes include making diversity an inescapable component of tenure and promotion; distributing grant funding among multiple people, including students, rather than empowering a single professor; making academic advising a team activity rather than a one-to-one relationship; providing meaningful protected avenues for filing and pursuing complaints, anonymously if necessary; and holding any violators publicly accountable.

At the NAS event, Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College, agreed that universities needed to take a closer look at the potential conflict posed by university lawyers who regarded their institution rather than its staff and students as their client.

“We need to take another look to understand the power of our general counsels in our colleges and universities,” Dr Johnson said.

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