Lifting the Curtain on Trauma in Stanford’s “Touchy Feely”: Helping Management Education Become Trauma-Informed

Jackie Rotman
May 31 · 9 min read

Trigger warning: While this piece does not discuss details of sexual assault itself, it does discuss what trauma can feel like, as well experiences of classroom settings that have retraumatized survivors.

Here are two students’ experiences in the Interpersonal Dynamics (“Touchy Feely”) class in the same quarter this academic year:

These experiences were fully preventable, yet the two examples above are unfortunately not the only ones like this. Classmates have told me about at least 4 T-groups from last quarter alone (out of 12 T-groups that quarter) in which the Touchy Feely program inappropriately and irresponsibly handled a situation involving a sexual assault survivor during the course, failing to create a safe learning environment. I heard these accounts without asking for stories or sending out a survey — through survivors bringing them up at barbeques or between classes — so imagine the many other students who could have suffered in similar ways.

I don’t need to imagine; I learned from across-the-street administrators that between all four offices that handle sexual assault or sexual harassment at Stanford (Title IX, Confidential Support Team, Sexual Harassment Policy Office, and the Office of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse Office) numerous students have come with complaints, over multiple years, after these students were harmed from how the course handled these topics. None of these students wanted to file a formal complaint — which is what I would expect, given that filing complaints or even discussing with faculty involves reliving the trauma, and many trauma survivors tend to turn inward and feel shame or self-blame — so GSB administrators may not have previously been sufficiently aware of the harm the program has caused for years.

The 101 on Trauma

In response to others’ experiences, I began talking with my Touchy Feely professor last quarter in an effort to understand the course’s systems, trainings, and processes to make Touchy Feely safe for students like me who have experienced trauma. I had felt confused by inconsistencies I was hearing.

As context, the nondisclosure editors asked me to show, not tell, what trauma or being “triggered” feels like. For some, trauma is waking up from nightmares having been screaming out loud in your sleep — hot tears all over your face and pillow. Trauma is asking Schwab’s front desk if they have a bucket… because a psychologist just taught you to fill up a bucket of water and hold your breath under it for one minute in order to bring your heart rate down when you’re too triggered. (This method — recommended by clinicians — works by convincing your body you’re at risk of dying so it preserves all the energy it can and thus slows your heart — bringing needed calm.) Trauma is why rape survivors, for example, are thirteen times as likely as non-crime survivors to attempt suicide — to attempt to escape it.

Trauma impacts millions of people besides survivors of sexual violence: people who have experienced combat, war, police brutality, abuse, other forms of violence, and more. 70% of adults in the US have experienced at least one traumatic event. 20% of these people develop PTSD at some point, and 8% have PTSD at any given time. Twice as many women have PTSD than do men. Trauma isn’t a choice, a lack of resilience, or a reflection of a victim’s character; it’s a neurological response to certain experiences. We now know enough about manifestations of trauma that we know (1) how to plan for it, (2) how to minimize exacerbating it, and (3) how to support people who have experienced it.

Touchy Feely Needs to Become “Trauma-Informed”

Extensive resources exist about how to build “trauma-informed education” systems; yet I was shocked to learn that the professor couldn’t tell me a single system or training in place for preparing for and responding to trauma (such as sexual trauma) in Touchy Feely. No mentions anywhere in the 27-page syllabus about the 24/7 resources students can call on campus for counseling after a triggering session. No “safe words” or actually effective systems to protect from conversations going too far in violating what (or how long) survivors are comfortable discussing. No mention out loud before students’ disclosures— instead, warnings hidden within a 27-page syllabus most students don’t read fully — of the fact that all facilitators and professors are mandated reporters of sexual harassment/assault, or that currently the program actually bans certain topics from being discussed in Touchy Feely altogether. (The syllabus says that for any discussions of sexual assault/harassment/misconduct by Stanford community members, of illegal activity, or of retaliation, these conversations will be stopped if they’re brought up in Touchy Feely.)

At the same time, the professor fully expects that traumatic experiences are extensively discussed in the course (and some people newly remember, during Touchy Feely, their traumatic experiences that their brains had previously suppressed memory of) — so I’d have expected someone in the program to have basic understanding of, and plans around, trauma. It’s like the course heating up burning hot pans in our hands, without any gloves for us to hold them.

Furthermore, the professor’s thinking about addressing trauma going forward was focused on updating the language on the pre-qualification assignment adding warnings to discourage more types of students from taking the class — not on taking the many possible, relatively basic steps to make the course safe for students. This continues to be the program’s party line when I bring complaints about trauma survivors to them: “Touchy Feely isn’t for everyone. More students can decide not to take the course.”

Yes, information and warnings are important and helpful for students deciding whether to take the course. However, having most of the emphasis be on excluding certain types of students, without also making — the very doable, basic to professionals — efforts to improve the course to be safe for more students is deeply misguided.

(1) First of all, expecting people who have experienced trauma to not take the course would exclude many people — which is a loss to both them and to other students who could learn with them — since as mentioned, 70% of adults in the US have experienced at least one traumatic event. Since 1 in 5 women are raped, excluding that group alone would mean that 1–2 women would disappear from every single T-Group (out of 12 T-groups, that would be 29 students each year) — plus male and non-binary survivors, and plus survivors of other types of sexual violence — and that doesn’t even include people who have faced trauma from other experiences like military combat, police brutality, and much more.

(2) Second, making the course inaccessible for these students is completely unnecessary; a plethora of resources and experts exist, including at Stanford, that can help educators take basic steps to make Touchy Feely more trauma informed. Each negative experience I’ve heard of was completely preventable with the right systems.

(3) Finally, the Touchy Feely program’s practices and attitudes may be against federal law. Before Touchy Feely’s faculty or leadership tell me for a seventh time that “this course isn’t for everyone,” that people like sexual assault survivors can just decide not take it, or that they are focusing on carefully thinking through expanding their warnings language to discourage more people like sexual assault survivors from taking it, they can realize that Title IX protects sexual assault survivors against exclusion from educational programming (among other provisions). Instead of focusing mainly on warning more people to opt out, this class can devote the necessary time to taking achievable steps that would make the class safe for trauma survivors who want to learn the Touchy Feely skillset, too.

A Call To Action

We, as a GSB community, need to talk about how to make Touchy Feely trauma informed, and thus psychologically safe for more students.

The Touchy Feely course was first offered at Stanford in 1968. I recently met an amazing Stanford GSB Class of 1968 graduate at an alumni event. His graduating class that year had three women and four African-Americans (a phrase not yet being used). It was the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and men were being drafted to the Vietnam War. Touchy Feely has undergone various evolutions since then. Today we have readings on white privilege, microaggressions, and intersectional identities. It’s time for another evolution for the course — to employ trauma-informed education practices. Based on what I’ve seen from over a dozen conversations with administrators/faculty at the GSB and other Stanford-wide offices on this issue in the past three months, I’m afraid that incremental changes like faculty talking to other offices, or adding a training, won’t be enough. Structural changes are necessary for this course to stop creating harm from unintended and yet systematic re-traumatization of certain students — in an increasingly diverse, resilient student body with a depth of life experiences.

The program needs to engage the right experts in trauma, and trauma informed education, to review and develop the systems needed — not just with the university offices that focus on legal compliance and reporting, but also with those that focus on trauma from a care standpoint. Touchy Feely is not therapy; however, there should at least be systems for minimizing deep psychological harm the course can cause if not designed and executed properly. Trauma professionals and those who have dedicated their careers and studies to trauma-informed education are best equipped to help design those particular types of systems, in collaboration with the other players.

“Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World”: Leading the Way in Trauma Informed Management Education

This op-ed so far focused on how to make GSB’s education non-harmful to certain groups. But recently, in a positive experience in Managing Growing Enterprises (“MGE”), I realized that management education even has the potential for us, as students, to proactively learn how to become trauma-informed leaders and managers ourselves — impacting those we work with and know. We listened to an entrepreneur share evidence-based practices for how to support employees who have experienced trauma — based on her learnings running a company in regions with significant violence and supporting an employee who had been trapped in the Kenya shootings.

Yet for the dozens of hours we spend in Touchy Feely sharing stories of trauma, we do not discuss the science about trauma itself (how it influences the brain, mind, and identity of a person). In order to help us become better leaders, Touchy Feely could, for instance, add a module and/or a couple of readings specifically about trauma, and how it changes lives and organizations. Without this literacy in an experience that impacts a major portion of our society, we ourselves are likely to inadvertently exacerbate harm and worsen others’ PTSD — even as we are increasingly in positions of influence. Yes, we live in a culture that so often doesn’t understand trauma. Yet if equipped with the knowledge, we can rise to be — and we have a moral obligation to become — leaders changing culture and supporting others. (And besides being the right thing to do, this can lead to better business results — particularly through productivity and retention.)

Extending Touchy Feely’s Benefits

Touchy Feely has been an incredible experience for thousands of people — it is a course talked about at reunions and admit weekends. The goal of writing this piece is not to take any of that away from anyone. The goal is to make the benefits of this program — life-changing for many, taken by “more than 90% of Stanford MBA students,” “voted the most popular elective for 45 years running at Stanford GSB” — also accessible and inclusive for groups of students who have routinely been harmed instead. When my GSB Class of 2019 graduates in two weeks, we’ll be the class that literally lived through the launch of the MeToo movement one month into our business school experience. If not us, who? If not now, when?

I don’t want anyone in the Class of 2021 to find their classmates cutting their wrists — or worse — after T-group, for reasons that were fully preventable. I want the future classes to be able to challenge themselves in spaces designed for all of our growth — and to develop knowledge and skills to more deeply support each other, and our communities.

If you are interested in calling on Touchy Feely (or another aspect of GSB’s educational programs) to become more trauma-informed, getting involved in efforts to help them do this, being an ally, discussing this topic over a small group meal, or sharing any feedback or context about these topics, please email FeedbackForGSB@gmail.com.

Also, if you are in need of confidential counseling at Stanford, support is available to you 24/7.

non disclosure

An online magazine written by and for the Stanford GSB community.

Jackie Rotman

Written by

@StanfordGSB & Harvard @Kennedy_School ’19. Advocate for intimacy justice, and equality in women’s sexual health. Founder & Board, @everybodydn.

non disclosure

An online magazine written by and for the Stanford GSB community.