Oberlin Faculty, Administration Must Be Active in Preventing Sexual Misconduct

Editor’s Note: Language in this editorial has been updated to clarify the sources used in its writing and more explicitly express the views of the Editorial Board.

Some of the most important relationships at Oberlin are those between students and members of the faculty and staff. Faculty, advisors, and deans all take meaningful roles in the lives of students that they work with — which is how it should be. After all, students come to small liberal arts schools like Oberlin for the accessibility of mentorship and guidance, as well as research opportunities predicated on working closely with faculty members that are not readily available to undergraduates at large universities.

With these relationships comes a great deal of responsibility. Students at Oberlin must be accountable to their professors — small class sizes ensure that it is difficult to slip by unnoticed without contributing to discussions or completing assignments. Oberlin students also feel a strong sense of commitment to engage with the world around them, and their academic mentors often play a strong role in modeling how to do that.

Faculty and staff must also be accountable to the students they teach and mentor. Breakdowns in trust and respect in professor-student or advisor-advisee relationships can result in difficult consequences that continue to impact students’ lives even after they leave Oberlin.

On Nov. 16, former Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Bernard Matambo resigned suddenly following allegations of sexual misconduct. On Dec. 1, the Review broke the news of these allegations (“Matambo Resigns Amid Sexual Misconduct Allegations”).

On its face, any sexual misconduct by faculty or staff is a violation of the trust that should exist between those employees and the students they work with. More broadly, the failure of faculty or staff to report such transgressions also violates students’ trust and threatens their safety.

Oberlin is a small school, which means that secrets rarely stay secret for very long and news spreads very quickly. Based on multiple off-the-record interviews, the Editorial Board believes it is likely, if the allegations against Matambo are true, that some of his colleagues — in the Creative Writing program and across campus — were aware of his actions well before his resignation three weeks ago.

Failure of faculty to report knowledge of sexual misconduct would be a grave omission. Under Oberlin’s sexual misconduct policy, faculty and staff members are “Responsible Employees” who are required to immediately report any knowledge of sexual misconduct to Oberlin’s Title IX coordinator. Failure to do so places those Responsible Employees in direct conflict with Oberlin policy. It also violates their moral and ethical responsibility to the students they mentor or simply encounter on campus.

A community that silently allows any sexual misconduct, including misconduct involving faculty and students, to take place creates an environment that does not have the best interests of community members at heart. We all — faculty, staff, and students — do our best work when we feel as though the people around us have our backs. Feeling uncomfortable or unsupported is isolating and intimidating, and detracts from our ability to engage with our communities in a healthy way.

The Oberlin community must hold itself accountable to addressing the dynamics that allow sexual misconduct to persist on college campuses, particularly Oberlin’s own. Given the possibility that other Creative Writing faculty failed to report sexual misconduct involving a member of their own program, which we believe is likely, an internal review of the entire program should be conducted by the Title IX office if the College is serious about ensuring that it does everything it can to prevent the replication of harmful dynamics that we read about in the news every day. If, in fact, no faculty failed to report knowledge of sexual misconduct, the review would reveal that and would represent an important step forward for the Creative Writing program and Oberlin in general.

This review would be carried out in addition to the climate survey of the entire campus that Oberlin conducts every two years. That general survey is intended to identify the climate around sexualized violence and misconduct on campus, and isolate potential problems that need to be addressed. A more specific review would turn that lens onto the Creative Writing program.

The Creative Writing program now faces significant challenges, including a staffing shortage following Matambo’s resignation, and would probably prefer to avoid further public scrutiny. However, while the onus should not be on victims of potential sexual misconduct to come forward, it is vital that the rest of us respect and act on their stories and experiences when they do. That acknowledgement is what many members of the Oberlin community have called for on the national stage over the past weeks, and is what we must do now — no matter how painful it is to investigate people you know and work with.

Oberlin should honor the ongoing national conversation about the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct and assault, as well as the valuable, mutually beneficial, and positive relationships that exist between students, faculty, and staff all over this campus. Much of the responsibility for this falls heavily on the faculty — many of whom are ready to engage in this work. It would be a shame if these allegations against Matambo poison the entire well of productive student-faculty engagement, but they will do exactly that if faculty do not make a greater commitment to identify and challenge violations to policy and community trust wherever they exist. Without this commitment, students have no reason to place trust in their teachers and mentors, and the fabric of what makes Oberlin a place for intellectual challenge and growth is ripped to shreds.