What’s On My Mind: Working together to end sexual harassment

This regular column is aimed at opening another channel of conversation with you about the opportunities and challenges we face, together as the faculty, students, staff and leaders of our great university.

Today marks the beginning of Women’s History Month, which this year comes at an especially important moment in America. In the last six months, women have shattered the silence shrouding the abomination of sexual harassment. Ignited by #MeToo and #TimesUp, brave women are changing our nation’s willingness to allow the damage of sexual harassment to be swept under the carpet.

Let me be unambiguously clear—sexual harassment and sexual assault will never be tolerated at Vanderbilt. Student, faculty and staff safety is of paramount importance. There is no place for violence, bias or discrimination of any form.

As Provost Wente wrote last week in her Open ’Dore newsletter, we each have a role to play in creating an environment where all members of our university community are safe, supported and have the opportunity to thrive. It will take the commitment of each of us to make that vision a lived reality for every individual at Vanderbilt.

Carly Fiorina said during my Chancellor’s Lecture Series discussion last week that while women are standing up and speaking out, that’s not enough. “It’s not going to stop until men stand up and stop excusing that behavior,” she said. “It’s an abuse of power, and it’s intolerable.”

She is absolutely right. We have to do more than just acknowledge the persistent power of structural, economic and cultural barriers to women’s advancement across and within workplaces. We have to commit to remove those barriers.

Women are essential to the success of Vanderbilt, leading in critical roles across the institution. We have the opportunity and responsibility as a university to help shape and grow future leaders who will go on to break any ceiling that exists.

We’ve developed several programs to remove barriers and create opportunity. One example is the Chancellor’s Higher Education Fellows program, in which I choose one or two faculty and staff leaders to gain experience and knowledge of the culture, policies and decision-making processes of higher education. Ifeoma Nwankwo and Tina L. Smith were the inaugural CHEFs in 2016; they are now associate provost for strategic initiatives and partnerships and interim vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, respectively. The 2017 CHEFs are Dr. Wonder Drake, professor of medicine and professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology, and Dr. Kyla Terhune, vice chair for education, surgical sciences, and associate professor of surgery and of anesthesiology. The goal of this effort is to build a robust pipeline of academic leaders for Vanderbilt and higher education overall.

The Chancellor Faculty Fellows program, which began in 2015, provides key support for recently tenured faculty, providing two years of funding and programming to advance trans-institutional scholarship. The faculty fellows are a microcosm of the Vanderbilt community, a diverse pool of scholars from all disciplines committed to the pursuit of discovery.

Another way we support future leaders is through the Academic Pathways Fellows program, which prepares recently graduated doctoral and law students for competitive academic careers, with a focus on candidates from diverse racial, ethnic and other backgrounds and experiences. Funding comes both from the university and a National Science Foundation grant that will help support a cohort of fellows in the STEM fields, with an emphasis on women of color. The first fellows—five women and two men—began their work this fall, and we’re in the process of naming the second group. The goal of this program is again to build a pipeline of faculty not just for Vanderbilt, but for higher education as a whole.

We believe creating networks of aware and informed colleagues is a key component of our efforts to support community. One way we’re doing that is through the Vanderbilt Leadership Academy, which develops high-performing women and men in both academic and administrative areas across the university and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to build their knowledge, capability and passion for leading the institution. We’re training our seventh cohort, and nearly 150 leaders have completed the program since it began.

This work is a good start. However, sobering statistics and harrowing testimonies show that there is still much work to be done, both on our campus and across society.

Surveys show that nearly all women report having experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault—and the workplace is one of the most common locations. Late last month, the New York Times wrote about a new online survey showing that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault over their lifetimes—higher than most other studies and polls have suggested.

Let these statistics invigorate us and not overwhelm us. Let us work even more closely with campus partners, including Project Safe. Now in its fourth year, Project Safe is an outstanding resource that addresses sexual harassment and assault and supports the students, faculty and staff impacted by it.

We know that diversity makes us stronger and more competitive. Today’s complex issues require many voices and perspectives to develop solutions. Help make that happen. Make a commitment to be welcoming and inclusive in your daily work. Mentor and provide guidance for those rising through the ranks behind you. Ensure that your hiring practices, committees, research laboratories and project teams reflect the diversity of our community. Speak up for yourself and others. Report claims of discrimination or harassment to our EEO office or our Title IX and Student Discrimination Office.

Knowledge is power, and action is essential. Working together, we will foster change.

“What’s On My Mind” is a regular column from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on the life, people and mission of Vanderbilt University and issues affecting higher education today. Share your thoughts at