Letter in response to “@BlackAtPepperdine—256 posts and counting” published Aug. 20
Before I begin, allow me to concede a few points. First, “Pepperdine representatives” is generic and open to several possibilities (HR, Public Information, General Counsel, etc.). Identity impacts messaging and these departments function uniquely. Second, Pepperdine is an institution whose reputation greatly rests upon the people acting and speaking on its behalf; the people chosen to create, enact and uphold its policies. (Therein lies the problem but more on that later). I use “Pepperdine” here to make my point but I mean specific people. Now, on to business.
Given the seriousness of the issues, I bristled at “a formal grievance system exists where students may initiate processes to address individual instances of discrimination and harassment” when asked if these reports had been specifically addressed. Boiled down, Pepperdine, you were asked if you used these reports to pursue any kind of corrective action against the perpetrators. A simple “no” would have sufficed. Pivoting to a university policy, a classic PR deflect and pivot tactic, is on par with a let-them-eat-cake mentality and victim shaming, and I found it a callous answer.
Be the community you profess yourself to be. Advocate for students in all areas, not just the easy, fun or academic ones, call colleagues (aka adults) out when they are not living up to these standards and hold them accountable. Instead, when Pepperdine clearly and repeatedly missed the mark, the best answer representatives can give is, “Well, the student could have filed a grievance.” Cool. Since you brought it up, let’s chat about the grievance process.
The grievance process is a tool. In the hands of the wrong administrator, it becomes a weapon. If you have people in positions of power who choose to excuse and enable bad behaviors, not only do these people become complicit in perpetuating the problem but the grievance process itself becomes as oppressive as the incident for which it was initiated. Spoiler alert: People do not always choose to do the right thing.
So yes, students can file grievances but the process is not an easy one. In July, I completed a temporary post within one of the departments listed as a repeat offender on IG, FB and Twitter. Having experienced the grievance process during my time on staff, let me share some highlights from my lived experience:
- The grievance process is incredibly lonely, incredibly stressful and incredibly draining. I worked with an employment lawyer, not because I am litigious, but because I needed the moral support. My grievance process was like a months-long gaslighting experience.
- The grievance process is broad. We are not talking a complete-this-form experience. My direction from Human Resources was to write out how my supervisor violated a “Pepperdine policy, procedure or norm.” All the written stuff plus traditions and general community standards. Friends, that is a lot to territory to cover.
- The grievance process is time-consuming. My supervisor drama started in September 2019, one month into the position, produced an informal unconscious bias complaint, a scathing performance review (the lawyer deemed it to be obviously retaliatory, which of course she denied), on the journey to a formal grievance, which ended in April 2020, when the final decision was rendered.
- The grievance process is unbalanced. Given her ultimate decision, it is highly improbable that the administrator who handled my case was not tasked with the same standards as HR gave to me when drafting the complaint. I was required to list specific policy violations. Her decision did not even address all of the points I raised and it was questionable if she had even fully read all of the supporting documents.
- The grievance process is flawed and inherently biased itself. In my case, the administrator side-stepped most of the issues, kicking it back down to my supervisor’s supervisor. Interesting choice, especially given the fact that he already knew about several issues. Not only was he aware, he could have addressed them, and even better, he could have chosen to intercede before we entered the grievance process. But, he didn’t. This woman has been a part of the department for 20 years and he is well aware of her attitudes and reputation.
- The grievance process has limited accountability. It yields all the power to the person reviewing the case who may or may not be interested in doing the right thing. So, while there is an appeal mechanism, you’re still trapped within that system; there is no guarantee that the next person will be any more invested or fair. If I were a sadist, I would have appealed but why put myself through more of that? Why continue to play a game that is rigged?
My experience with Pepperdine’s formal grievance process revealed the epic failure of leadership and ultimate cowardice of those with the power to exact real change at the university. Pepperdine, as represented by this administrator, picked the lowest hanging fruit on the justice tree. She did the least she could do for me.
Her written decision was a surface-level victory but there was little to celebrate. Although she said that some issues would be addressed, they were not. She offered no action plan for addressing the concerns. The person she assigned to “handle” some of the problems never did. She did not hold him accountable. HR did not hold her accountable. Zero follow-up; not a meeting or conversation.
We never spoke of the situation again.
My former supervisor, a white female, got away with toxic, aggressive, bigoted behavior. She never had to explain her comments, attitudes or actions toward me. Her boss, a white male, did nothing. His boss, a white female, did nothing. My experience was minimized and largely dismissed. My voice was ignored and I carried my wounds alone. If I had wanted any actual justice, I would have had to pursue it in a court of law.
Unwilling to continue to compartmentalize to survive, and for my own self-worth, I left that position. If I cannot stand up for myself, I can hardly expect others to stand up for me. And nobody was standing up. I was drowning in a sea of sympathy from people for “what I was going through” but there was no action. When people show you who they are, believe them. I see you, Pepperdine.
Further insult to injury is that Pepperdine is a Christian community. I am not bagging on that: I am a proud Jesus-follower! Yet, sympathy and compassion are not the same thing. Jesus was moved by compassion and he confronted injustice head-on. So, are we talking about the same Jesus, Pepperdine?
Growing up, I remember watching my mother tend to her gardens, obsessed with the condition of the soil because good soil is imperative for growth and thriving. Pepperdine must examine the condition of its soil. Like many, my relationship with Pepperdine is multi-layered. Most of my journey at the university was incredible. God led me to Pepperdine and did so much work in my life while I was there. Some of the people I love most in the world, and hold dearest to my heart, I met at Pepperdine. Still, my experience like many others is a both-and, not either-or, situation. Our shared @BlackAtPepperdine experiences are not exaggerations nor random coincidences.
Woeful ignorance, continued choices, and deliberate inaction have perpetuated this abuse and that is the threadline traceable throughout freshman stories, recent graduate stories, staff stories and alumni stories from decades ago. There must be more than just “listening” and “sympathizing”. Without real action, the promise to “ascend together” will not be realized. Decidedly the black community at Pepperdine will continue to be left behind. #BeBetterPepperdine. #DoBetterPepperdine