#JHToo seeks to revoke accused professor’s tenure

By DIVA PAREKH | February 28, 2019

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#JHToo members organized a protest at the end of this past semester.
EDA INCEKARA / The News-Letter

Editor’s Note: This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

#JHToo, a coalition of student activists organizing against sexual violence at Hopkins, started a letter-writing campaign on Monday to pressure administrators to revoke Anthropology Professor Juan Obarrio’s tenure. In May 2018 Obarrio was accused of sexually assaulting a visiting graduate student. 

The Baltimore chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), a graduate student union, are collaborating with #JHToo to promote the campaign.

#JHToo, ISO Baltimore and TRU explained on the campaign website why they have decided to solicit letters from the public.

“The Dean’s Office at the Johns Hopkins School of Arts and Sciences has determined that Professor Juan Obarrio committed physical assault and violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy,” the page reads. “The Homewood campus Academic Council [HAC] is currently determining sanctions — they are projected to make a decision by the end of this week. It is now up to us to urge the Council to do the right thing and revoke Professor Obarrio’s tenure.”

The News-Letter reached out to Obarrio for comment but did not receive a response as of press time.

The News-Letter is also in the process of independently corroborating information regarding the verdict reached by the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences (KSAS) Dean’s Office.

According to HAC’s tenure regulation guidelines, HAC members would need to vote in favor of revoking Obarrio’s tenure in order for the Provost’s office to consider the revocation of tenure. If HAC found that just cause for revocation of Obarrio’s tenure existed, Obarrio could also appeal in writing to the Provost’s office within 14 days of receiving HAC’s decision.

The Provost’s office would then need to affirm HAC’s finding for revocation of tenure and forward it to the Office of the President and the Board of Trustees for consideration. 

In a statement to The News-Letter, University Vice President for Communications Susan Ridge declined to comment specifically on the accusations against Obarrio.

“The university takes allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault very seriously and has a comprehensive policy on investigating and resolving such complaints,” the statement read. “We also have an obligation to protect the privacy of both the respondents and the complainants in all cases. We do not comment on any specific report or investigation at any time in the process.”

#JHToo members and Anthropology graduate students Heba Islam and Marios Falaris were witnesses to the incident between Obarrio and the visiting graduate student. Falaris argued that though tenure is meant to protect academic freedom, this is a situation in which revoking it is crucial.

“Hiding this kind of crime under tenure weakens the institution of tenure,” he said.

Islam described the outpouring of support after #JHToo announced the letter-writing campaign. Though #JHToo provided a template of the letter that people could send HAC, she explained that many had been deviating from the template to tell their own stories.

“Some of the stories are heartbreaking. We have stories from people who have been assaulted themselves on the Hopkins campus or on other undergraduate campuses,” Islam said. “We had prospective grad students writing saying that they would not come here if his tenure is not revoked. We had someone else send an email saying they’re not going to make any donations unless this happens.”

Islam said that #JHToo has received over 100 letters so far from people from a wide range of institutions, positions and affiliations to the University. According to Islam, this reaction to #JHToo’s campaign speaks to the community’s general perception of University administrators.

“They make you feel unwelcomed and unsafe. At no point has anyone in the administration made me feel safe or welcomed as a witness, as a student, as anything. Any support has been through informal systems,” she said.

Islam and Falaris explained that after the survivor reported the incident in May, it took about eight months for OIE to process the case. Falaris felt that the University’s process of investigating sexual violence accusations was deliberately ambiguous, and that it made it difficult to hold any particular official accountable for mishandling an investigation. He explained that at each stage of the process, the investigation was handled by a different party, whether it was OIE or an external investigator or the Dean’s office or HAC.

“Part of the problem is this very confusing system of passing the buck along,” he said. “This case has dragged on for so long. With all the deferring responsibility to different, unknown parties, it never really concluded.”

Islam and Falaris said that while the survivor accused Obarrio of sexual assault, the OIE’s interim investigative report only found Obarrio responsible for sexual harassment. Consequently, they helped organize the #JHToo protest on Dec. 6.

Islam believes that the impact of the rally in December was critical, explaining that it was potentially the reason that the second stage of the investigation in which the Office of the Dean of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences (KSAS) came to a resolution took only two months, as opposed to the eight months that the first stage took.

“The rally was monumental. Nothing would be happening now without it, and there’s a lot of evidence for that,” she said. “We’ve been told by people who have given us informal legal advice that they’ve worked with Hopkins administrators before, and they don’t respond to anything but public pressure and public shaming.”

According to the #JHToo letter writing campaign webpage, two months after the protest the KSAS Dean’s office report found Obarrio responsible for both physical assault and violating the sexual misconduct code.

Islam emphasized that to prompt a reaction from administrators, it was crucial for activists to break the culture of silence inherent in the University’s processes of investigating sexual violence accusations.

“This whole process has been shrouded in secrecy, and that’s how they get their power. The constant lack of transparency shrouds everything in the language of confidentiality,” Islam said. “We just want to name what happened. We just want to say it out loud. This is a matter of public safety.”

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