How the NMNH can regain trust after mishandling sexual assault

After having mishandled a confirmed case of sexual assault over a period of years, the Smithsonian Institution (SI) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) have lost nearly all credibility when it comes to keeping women safe. Here are four things that the NMNH leadership can do at the upcoming all-staff meeting in order to regain the trust of the museum community:

1. Admit to mishandling sexual assault, and apologize. As Congresswoman Jackie Speier wrote, “The behavior of Smithsonian officials in this case has ranged from incompetent to actively complicit.” And as the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem. To my knowledge, none of the various curators and administrators who mishandled my situation have issued any sort of apology, nor have any of their supervisors. Certainly nobody has apologized to me. The dialogue promised in Kirk Johnson’s e-mail to the museum community will only be meaningful if it is built upon an honest recognition of the facts at hand, and so the relevant NMNH employees must admit to their role in this disaster, and apologize.

2. Propose adequate policies for the NMNH, and a timeline. To quote Congresswoman Speier again, “If no Smithsonian policies were violated in this case, as the Inspector General has stated, then the policies are grossly inadequate and must be changed.” The NMNH must swiftly enact its own meaningful sexual misconduct policy and train us to understand these policies, for two reasons: (1) to protect women within the NMNH as soon as possible, and (2) to lead the rest of the Smithsonian community by example. The NMNH leadership should make a public commitment to implementing adequate policies in a timely fashion.

3. Welcome an external investigation. My situation was not mishandled by a single individual or office; many individuals from various units of the NMNH and SI belittled me, lied to me, and denied my right to reasonable accommodations. This is not a case of “a few bad apples.” And so our only hope is an independent, external investigation into what went wrong. The NMNH leadership should welcome such an investigation, and cooperate fully.

4. Clarify the current sexual misconduct policies. As Conrad Labandeira told The Verge: under the SI’s current misconduct policies, “it’s the person who is harassed who has to jump through all the hoops, and the hoops are not always specified.” Simply acknowledging the current policies — which are clearly inadequate — will benefit no one. My own ordeal brings up a number of points that must be addressed while we wait for meaningful new policies to be enacted.

  • Students at the Smithsonian whose research will contribute to a degree at an accredited US institution are protected by Title IX, even though the Smithsonian itself is not a Title IX institution. If the Smithsonian and NMNH are serious about protecting students, they will tell all students about the option of seeking recourse under Title IX.
  • Multiple SI/NMNH employees told me that I should contact Security so that they could help to provide me with a safe workplace; multiple SI/NMNH employees told me that I was prohibited from telling Security about my situation because such matters are confidential; and the fact that I ultimately did not contact Security was eventually used — wrongly, I might add — as an excuse for denying me reasonable accommodations. At the staff meeting, the role of Security in these matters should be clarified. To this day, I still have no idea whether I should, or could, have met with Security to ask for their help.
  • Given the recent news stories from around the country of sexual misconduct on the part of police officers themselves (e.g., the Oakland PD), it is hardly fair to demand that women trust law enforcement after being subjected to sexual misconduct; furthermore, the current SI policy does not require victims to do so. It must be made clear that victims have a right to a safe workplace even if they do not contact law enforcement, because my decision not to file a police report was (again, wrongly) used as an excuse to deny me reasonable accommodations.
  • The reporting window for sexual misconduct is absurdly short: victims have a mere 45 days. The current sexual misconduct policy should be posted in public areas such as elevators or restrooms and should be sent out to the entire NMNH community once per month so that everyone — people who just arrived, people who have not received training — can see it in time.

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Given the NMNH’s history of ignoring sexual misconduct, many members of the museum community are worried that the dialogue promised by leadership might not lead to any meaningful change. Implementation of the four suggestions listed here will signal that conditions will finally improve for women at the NMNH, and perhaps eventually throughout all of the Smithsonian.