'Whatever the cause, it is unacceptable for a state government to strip a woman’s voice from her, when so much has already been done to her without her consent' (Graphic by Jesus Acosta)
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'Whatever the cause, it is unacceptable for a state government to strip a woman’s voice from her, when so much has already been done to her without her consent' (Graphic by Jesus Acosta)

New York’s controversial practices regarding sexual harassment raise deeper questions surrounding entrenched gendered disparities on college campuses.

On Jan. 14, 2018, The New York Daily News published a story revealing that the State of New York has shelled out millions of dollars to settle sexual harassment and discrimination cases over the last 10 years.

The Daily News’ tabloid style jauntily paints the picture of a persistently serious issue, and while the newspaper begins with an air of triviality, it proceeds to incisively explain the years of unsavory payments that resolved disputes over unacceptable behavior directed toward females in the workplace.

According to the article, within the past decade, New York State has expended almost $12 million to settle at least 85 lawsuits involving sexual misconduct. The kicker is that $2.4 million of the expenditure was spent to settle lawsuits at CUNY and SUNY colleges, involving charges of sexual misconduct against faculty members.

Multiple women provided comments to The Daily News relating remarks, gestures and threats that targeted the women while working at New York State and City school systems.

One woman was reportedly fired from her position as an executive assistant at CUNY’s Lehman College because she stopped condoning the harassment and spoke to colleagues about various inappropriate advances by her boss. She was awarded $130,000 in 2014 from the State of New York to settle the case — an act of silencing.

One of at least 18 other similar stories covered up by the state, this woman’s account embodies the apparent futility of reporting sexual misconduct in the workplace. But what strikes the face of progressivism even harder is the setting where these behaviors took place and were subsequently ignored — dismissed as something money could mend.

College campuses are meant to give voice to students of potential. Schools are supposed to supply students with the tools necessary for building an intellect that will level the playing field in the long run.

Academic settings, and public universities in a state that claims to encourage students of all backgrounds to pursue higher education at that, are expected to embolden their pupils to speak out. Paying off victims of sexual misconduct to uphold a reputation inherently contradicts a concept that forms the foundations of academic settings — it tells students to shut up.

After spending millions of dollars to cover up controversy, the New York State government has effectively deprived itself of its accountability, specifically to its young, ambitious and studious inhabitants. SUNY and CUNY are in similar positions, though spokespeople for the academic institutions beg to differ.

The Daily News reports that Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for CUNY, insisted that the university system enforces policies that protect students and employees from sexual misconduct, like the many cases that the state government was able to temporarily mask.

In a statement, Sobrino said, “To be clear, the university has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and has taken action to help ensure our campuses have procedures and practices that offer a safe environment for all students and employees.” A SUNY spokesperson noted, “Prevention of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination is a top priority.”

Both assertions, however, conflict with the state’s actions in settling controversial harassment and discrimination policies. Taxpayer dollars were used to perpetuate a silencing culture, and at public universities designed to give everyone a voice, no less. Zero tolerance for gendered inequality comes with a price tag. What message does this send to students?

One can only hope that a scandal of this nature does not permeate into student life at universities in New York — or anywhere, for that matter. But a notion as idealistic as this is unconvincing, seeing as sexual harassment, assault and abuse are rampant on college campuses. This is likely due, in part, to the example set in the vast majority of professional and social spaces.

Whatever the cause, it is unacceptable for a state government to strip a woman’s voice from her, when so much has already been done to her without her consent.

While a progression toward gender equality has emerged in a larger, abstract context, specific instances like the SUNY and CUNY lawsuit settlements act as micro-reassertions of the norm that subtly but surely discourage women from coming forth with sexual misconduct allegations. A female student should receive the same support and respect as her male counterpart, just as a female faculty member — no matter her rank in the institution — should feel as comfortable and safe in her workplace as her male coworker — or peer, or boss. It’s as simple as that.

Writer Profile

Leslie Currie

University of Virginia
Foreign Affairs

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