by Dr. Roddrick Colvin
It is March 24, 2025, and Professor Smith has just received her reconciliation notification as she hurries to teach her public administration class at Big State University. Although she expected the notification to arrive this day, it nonetheless caught her off guard. It wasn’t the first time she received a notification, nor was it the first time she had interacted with the Office of the State Attorney General or their Division on Truth and Reconciliation (DTR), charged with addressing cases of sexual impropriety at work and other public settings.
In the past, she had offered support and testimony to friends, family, and co-workers via the encrypted online application on cases of sexual harassment and misconduct. She had also participated in scores of online training exercises, webinars, and “open dialogues” that were part of the Division’s work. Still, this reconciliation notification caught her a little off-guard.
Unlike her previous interactions with the DTR, Smith had never been asked to submit testimony about her personal experiences. This time she was being asked to recount events from nearly 20 years ago when she was a graduate student. Back then she was forced to rebuff several advances from Professor Xavier – a tenured professor – in her Department before she graduated. While the advances were considered mild by today’s standard, over time, Smith came to understand the inappropriateness of his behavior, and the effects it had on her and other individuals in the Department. She came to understand that his advances created an environment hostile to learning and working, but did not consider them to be life-altering incidents.
Smith had never discussed these experiences from graduate school. In fact, her testimony was being solicited by the Division at the request of Professor Xavier. He was using DTR’s proactive program to seek out and redress misdeeds that he had committed during his career as a professor and hoped Smith would participate in the process. Smith, for her part, had taken the online tutorial about the purpose and goals of ‘truth and reconciliation,” provided testimony about her experiences with Xavier, reviewed the testimonies of others affected by Xavier’s behavior (including Xavier), and now she was ready to select her preferred remedies and corrective actions. As she was satisfied with Xavier’s efforts to acknowledge and correct is behavior, she chose to accept his apology and archive her experiences. When asked by a colleague about her experiences with the DTR and Xavier, she said, “Look, I remember when the ‘Me Too’ movement started, we spent a lot of time and energy sorting through claims of inappropriateness and being made uncomfortable, from actual sexual misconduct. It was tedious, inequitable, and time-consuming. We needed a way to let the accused and accusers come forward and be heard outside of the criminal justice system and outside of the court of public opinion. The DTR provides that system. As my mom always said, when we know better, we do better … Xavier knows better, now he can do better.”
A systematic and transparent approach to addressing sexual impropriety and other hostile incidents is possible if we accept the following as true.
First, the ‘me too’ movement has been an undeniable force for good by giving voice to individuals who might not otherwise have their voices heard about the nature of sexual impropriety, including assault.
Second, by calling out and holding accountable individuals (mostly men) who have used their power and position to take advantage of others, no field or occupation has been immune to this social movement. Thus, we can expect more people to come forward and seek redress.
Third, despite various laws and policies, our current systems do not adequately prevent, protect or redress much of the bad behavior that spawned the ‘me too’ movement. This includes much of our criminal justice system which onerously places the burdens of proof on accusers, uses narrow definitions which cause many issues to fall outside of the law, and applies arbitrary statutes of limitations on many of the activities that are considered crimes.
As the ‘me too’ movement exposes bad actors and behaviors within our academic field, our professional discipline, and society in general, our approach and response should be more systematic, transparent and orderly.
I propose something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission would be a forum for the accused, accuser, and bystanders. This is not a place for victims and survivors of illegal sexual harassment, assault or violence. We retain the criminal justice system for those cases. This forum is for any encounter that needs a resolution but falls outside of our criminal justice framework. It captures the voices of anyone affected by sexual impropriety and misconduct, which includes all of us.
Beyond turning our attention to this important issue, the ‘me too’ movement has created an opportunity for us to create a system for redress that we probably needed long ago. We need a system that allows us to speak openly, honestly and frankly about the complexities of power, gender inequity, and sexism. We need a system that can remediate ongoing and decades-old incidents between individuals. We need a system that supports and encourages everyone to come forward and bear witness to the misdeeds of the pasts, included those who perpetrated misdeeds.
The incidents that occurred between Smith and Xavier are not uncommon. Unfortunately, we have never really had a system to properly adjudicate such cases. Now is our chance to create a new system; a system that allows for real truth and reconciliation with our past.
About the author:
Associate Professor of Public Administration
San Diego State University
Roddrick Colvin is an Associate Professor of Public Administration in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, where he teaches courses in public administration and criminal justice. His current research interests include public employment equity, police officers’ shared perceptions and decision-making, and lesbian and gay civil rights. His research has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including the Review of Public Personnel Administration, Police Quarterly, and Women and Criminal Justice. He is also the author of the book Gay and Lesbian Cops: Diversity and Effective Policing (Lynne Rienner Publishing, 2012). Dr. Colvin earned undergraduate degrees in political science and philosophy at Indiana University–Bloomington, a graduate degree in public administration at Seattle University, and a doctorate degree in public administration at the University at Albany (SUNY).