Edit Desk: The power and importance of accountability

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Nicole Walker

I recently read a Twitter thread by Washington University in St. Louis doctoral candidate Richard Powis regarding the firing of anthropology professor Juan Obarrio at Johns Hopkins University for violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy.

According to a Baltimore Sun article, Obarrio was accused of flirting with a graduate student at a bar in May 2018. He then proceeded to grab and drag her toward the exit. People intervened to help the student, who later filed a Title IX report with the university.

The decision to fire and remove Obarrio’s tenure was made in July 2019, 14 months later.

Meanwhile, Ruth Marshall, a professor at the University of Toronto and a colleague of Obarrio’s, began a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Obarrio to appeal against the university’s decision to fire him. A leaked email by University of California Berkeley professor Mariane Ferme was sent to 25 colleagues asking them to donate to Marshall’s campaign.

However, Marshall’s description for the campaign only mentions the “expensive medical care and drugs” that Obarrio needs, following his leukemia and his loss of healthcare, which covered his wife and 10-year-old son. The professors who are donating know it’s for the appeal costs, but, on the public forum, those who weren’t included in the email might think differently.

Following Powis’ exposure of these structures of power, Marshall essentially harassed him for his choice to speak out. In a now-deleted tweet, she wrote, “I’d be delighted to explain why I support Juan to you and your merry band of witch hunters and fascists-in-training.”

I can’t imagine any professor I have ever had saying anything close to this.

A student decided to share the infractions he noticed to make people aware of the systems of power playing at hand, and was rebuked for doing so. 

The amount of institutional and structural violence in this entire ordeal is astounding.

Many universities, including Johns Hopkins University and Lehigh University, stick to the 60-day timeline, which states that a case will be resolved within 60 calendar days of reporting. The university does hold the right to extend this time period depending on the case’s complexity.

I understand that speaking to the victim and witnesses requires time, but taking 14 months to investigate and close a case can leave those involved in prolonged distress.

Looking up “Title IX university” in a Google search brings up results from colleges nationwide, all with the general overarching idea that the system needs to be repurposed to strengthen the resources and communication between parties.

This situation mimics the recent story that came to light about the allegations against Lehigh track and field coach Matt Utesch. Students were left without answers from the Title IX Office, even though we are constantly urged to come forward and report.

To the professors who are donating to help Obarrio appeal his firing, I am speechless.

As an anthropology major, I take classes that emphasize the flaws in institutions and structures of power, and how those need to be acknowledged to foster change. I learn about the importance of support systems in culture and community.

These professors teach on the same core values, but seem to be directing help to the wrong side. 

Of course, it’s terrible his family is left without healthcare and has outstanding medical costs from leukemia. Unfortunately, his choices have consequences that he needs to face. Perhaps if the GoFundMe was made solely for medical bills, and not an appeal to the firing, I would think differently.

How are students supposed to feel comfortable in class after reading that their professor willingly supports an abuser? I don’t have the answer to that.

But I do know these people and institutions need to be held accountable.

Journalism seeks to inform the public about the happenings around them. Being part of The Brown and White investigative team has taught me how to ask more direct questions to expose what is happening around campus. I have been privileged to have, and share, those important conversations.

Although social media has its criticisms, the ability to spread information quickly invites users to do so. A Twitter thread has made me, and countless others, consider the facets of this situation. 

Speaking up is the most important thing you can do today. Sharing the information you have, whether to a journalist or on social media, can impact the perceptions people have on a range of topics. 

For me, after reading the names of the professors on that donation list, I can say that I’m choosing not to read their scholarship. And that’s where change starts.

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2 Comments

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    “For me, after reading the names of the professors on that donation list, I can say that I’m choosing not to read their scholarship. And that’s where change starts.” I disagree, as if you not learning something worthwhile is punishing the man who discovered the knowledge. Change starts with you doing something worthwhile for others in the hope that they will do the same.

    “These professors teach on the same core values, but seem to be directing help to the wrong side.” I don’t know what this is meant to convey. But recalling an anthropological study on Railroaders and having experience in that area it seems to me that the most important influence is not what you teach or are taught but who and how you associate with peers. Professors are peers, students are not. You see the effect with many other groups who protect their own. Right or wrong sometimes varies from group to group. Especially in these times right and wrong are not agreed upon in society as a whole.

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