Benefits committee hears bystander strategies for responding to bias


It is difficult, but can be desirable, to intervene in discriminatory or harassing behavior that happens right in front of you, Zachary Davis told the University Senate’s Benefits and Welfare Committee on Nov. 15. As gender discrimination and Title IX response officer in the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, he presented strategies for “Responding to Bias Incidents, including Sexual Misconduct” as a bystander.

While not pressing explicitly for bystander intervention in such situations, Davis did say that Pitt’s nondiscrimination statement implies that University community members owe a response to incidents they might witness. And committee chair Linda Tashbook noted that “there are often ways a bystander can do something about” discriminatory and harassing situations that one may observe, however involuntarily.

Judging whether actions and speech are harassment is part of the task of deciding, as a bystander, to intervene, Davis noted: Was the conduct unwelcome or unjustified? Would a reasonable person find the conduct offensive or violent? Did the environment or system where the conduct occurred include a power dynamic?

Davis allowed that the power dynamic — of teacher or advisor to student, or even of student to student — can make a response difficult. The incident, if perpetrated against a student by a professor or advisor, for instance, might require a student to speak up to someone who can affect their academic and career future. One student choosing to speak up about or to another might anger a peer.

Davis discussed a scenario in which a professor offered undesired compliments about a student’s appearance and even “jokingly asked her about her relationship status.” Maybe this professor “is intending to create a welcoming environment” but still overstepping personal boundaries — or maybe this professor is leading up to soliciting a sexual situation.

If the professor’s colleague observed these interactions, the colleague could intervene as a bystander. Others witnessing such interactions, Tashbook suggested, might direct the student to the appropriate Pitt office to report the situation, or to resources on the website of the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

One faculty member on the committee, however, suggested that such a response could endanger the professor’s career when a simpler verbal instruction might correct the behavior.

Davis countered that his office “takes a trauma-informed approach” and focuses on the potentially injured party. “Think of the victim,” he said. “Often survivors may have lost some sense of control...

“We want the survivor to address us (concerning) how to respond,” he added: whether the response should be minimal, from his office, or whether the student in this hypothetical situation might only wish to be connected to a counselor to help deal with what happened.

The difficulty in such situations can become particularly acute in smaller academic departments where there is a limited choice of teachers and advisors for the students. “We want to empower the victim or survivor to choose the path” of resolution, Davis said, unless the case involves a safety concern or actual criminal behavior.

Perhaps the most difficult situation occurs when continuing harassment by one individual is an open secret within a department. Fear of retribution should not be a roadblock, Davis said: faculty members and students may make anonymous reports to Pitt’s civil rights and Title IX office

Of course, Davis acknowledged, intervening in such situations is safer in a group than one on one, and you may not wish to continue intervening if you receive a bad reaction. Assessing your safety before intervening, he said, “will drastically determine how we should or should not intervene in a scenario.”

Overall, he concluded, those who respond directly to bias incidents should consider “how might that strategy empower that victim or survivor moving forward.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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