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Oregon Professor Says She's Facing Retaliation For Sexual Assault Criticism

06/17/2014 07:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The University of Oregon is declining to use a campus survey on sexual assault developed by one of its own professors, whom the school had previously called a "national authority" on the issue. The university's stated reasoning is leading some faculty to suggest that the school is retaliating against a noted critic of its record on sexual assault.

In April, psychology professor Jennifer Freyd was invited to meet with a White House task force to discuss a campus sexual violence survey that she had developed. The task force suggested in a report that all universities should conduct such surveys. The University of Oregon, however, elected not to use the one developed by Freyd.

Last week, University of Oregon spokeswoman Rita Radostitz told Oregon's Register-Guard that Freyd's personal views might have biased her survey. Radostitz also suggested that Freyd had failed to collaborate with other staff who work with sexual assault victims.

According to the Register-Guard, the school's vice president for student affairs, Robin Holmes, similarly raised the specter of “confirmation bias.” Holmes suggested that survey questions were slanted to prove what Freyd already believed about school failures on sexual violence.

To Freyd, an award-winning scholar and chair of the Science Committee of the American Psychological Association’s Trauma Division, such statements challenging the integrity of her work are evidence of retaliation.

Julie Brown, the university's senior director for communications, emphasized in a statement Monday to The Huffington Post that the school did not reject the idea of doing a campus survey on sexual violence and that it expects such a survey to be among the recommendations by its own presidential review panel on sexual assault.

However, Brown made the "bias" point again. "In selecting a survey instrument for a campus climate survey on issues of sexual violence, it is critical to avoid the risk of confirmation bias in the results," she said. "We believe that can best be accomplished by experts external to the University working collaboratively with university staff."

But Freyd argues that the university turned down her survey not because of any alleged fault in its format but because she criticized the school's handling of an alleged gang rape involving three Oregon basketball players. In May, Freyd filed a federal complaint accusing the university of violating the Clery Act, the federal campus security law.

In a Friday email to trustees and the university's general counsel, also shared with HuffPost, Freyd said that the university officials' statements create "speculation" about Freyd's scientific integrity and that it's inappropriate to "criticize the scientific impartiality of a University faculty member."

"The campus climate survey was written prior to May 5 and contains no new psychological instruments," Freyd wrote, referencing the date when news about the alleged gang rape broke. "It is largely similar to the survey recommended by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault augmented with a few instruments used in our peer-reviewed research. Far from representing 'bias' this survey is composed of standard scientific instruments to be conducted by a premier research team in this field. It is insulting to suggest otherwise."

Carol Stabile, director of the university's Center for the Study of Women in Society, said it's "crazy" that the university is not taking up Freyd on her offer to do the campus survey "on the cheap," instead electing to hire outside consultants. As for the school's explanation of why it isn't using Freyd's survey, Stabile said, that presents a real threat for the tenured professor.

"What's at stake for Jennifer is her reputation as a researcher and a scholar," Stabile said.

Stabile added that over the last six weeks, since the news of the alleged gang rape, she has received "more emails than I can count" from faculty and graduate students thanking her for speaking publicly about sexual assault on campus. "I just find it so sad and troubling that people should think that doing my job -- caring for and about my students -- should be an act of bravery," Stabile said. "It's also a grim reminder of all the ways in which people feel that they can't speak up and out about sexual violence on the campuses they work on."

Freyd requested that the university issue a public apology and that the administration "desist in making further defamatory statements about my work or character." She said she has not received any apology and she has created a web page about laws governing retaliation in the educational context.

"These statements made by UO administrators were false, malicious, harmful, and seemingly retaliatory," Freyd wrote. "This has to stop now."

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