Applying for NSF Funding – PI perspective

I recently collaborated with a multidisciplinary team of colleagues to write an NSF proposal. The process had all the best characteristics of science: learning each others’ language, building a common understanding of our project goals, building trust and respect for very different forms of expertise. I am so excited to work with this project team and am grateful at their patience in teaching me about their scholarship.

During the proposal development, I realized that guides to NSF proposals are mostly written from the perspective of institutional administrations. These are great, but still leave some steps in the process murky from the perspective of project PIs and co-PIs. I sat down one night and wrote a guide to the NSF proposal process from my perspective as a PI. I hope it is helpful.

First and Foremost: Read the NSF Guide to Proposals!!!! Make sure you access the most current version of the guide since NSF adds updates.

National Science Foundation Proposal Process from the PI/co-PI Perspective
Prepared by Julie Libarkin
Accurate as of January 2019
This document provides guidance for submission of proposals to National Science Foundation (NSF) from the perspective of PIs and Co-PIs.


  1. Identify the grants person in your unit or college. Let them know you are submitting a proposal, provide the link to the RFP, and state the proposal deadline.
    1. Most universities have internal deadlines for routing of budgets and completion of proposal documents. Find out these deadlines.
  2. Every PI/co-PI must have an NSF login. If you do not have one, your institution must generate one for you. This verifies that you have the “right” to submit as an institutional PI. Remember, NSF grants go to institutions not individuals.
    1. Many institutions limit who can serve as a PI. Check with your institution. If you are told you are not eligible, ask if there is an exemption process. For example, many institutions will exempt postdocs and allow them to serve as co-PIs.
  3. A number of certifications are required by NSF (or the federal government) upon proposal submission. Most institutions will know how to handle these certifications and thus PIs/co-PIs generally do not need to worry about these. For institutions with less experience in submitting proposals, PIs/co-PIs may need to do some of the work themselves. If you are unsure about your institution’s capabilities, ask about certifications early.


  1. Read the NSF proposal guide at least once per year. NSF changes their process and rules over time, and typically at least once a year. This guide provides technical guidelines (e.g., page margins), required components of the
    1. Note that every suggestion made in this document is based on the NSF grant proposal guide! Read the guide!!!!!
  2. Read the RFP. Then read it again. Read it a third time when you think your proposal is done. Ask your proposal co-authors to read it as well.
    1. Look for components of the project description that are different from the components listed in the grant proposal guide. Miss one, and you aren’t likely to get funded.
    2. Read the program page for general details about the program and contact information for Program Officers.
    3. Look up abstracts of recently funded projects. These may be linked from the program page or the RFP. You can also search for abstracts here:
  3. Other Required Documents. NSF requires a suite of documents be completed in addition to the project description. It is very important that these be completed correctly – not following the rules is an easy way to get disqualified.
    1. Cover Sheet. The cover sheet contains information about the PI/co-PIs and the program to which the proposal is being submitted. Most of this is self-explanatory, although working with a grants person is helpful.
      • Note that the “Human Subjects” or “Animal Subjects” box must be checked for those forms of research (even if research is exempt). If approval has not yet been granted by your institutional IRB, type “pending” into the date box.
        1. If you are lucky enough to get funded, NSF will not release any funds until IRB approval is obtained! For full review processes, you may need to submit for IRB approval in the time between submission and learning if you have been funded.
      • Each PI/co-PI must submit a biosketch. This document details your background and must be in a very specific format. I encourage obtaining a copy of a biosketch from a colleague who has already submitted to NSF and modifying it for your needs.
      • Budget and Budget Justification. NSF has very specific categories of allowed costs. Most institutions have templates for these documents and people to help you. Read the grant proposal guide and ask questions!
        1. Do not exceed the total budgetary limit. You also don’t have to ask for the full amount up to the limit. I encourage asking for the funds you need to do the work.
        2. Collaborative proposals are limited to the budget limit. This means that the TOTAL amount on all collaborating proposals must be under that limit!
        3. Make sure you connect with your institution’s central budget office for their approval of your budget and justification!
  4. Current and Pending Support. Each PI/co-PI must document all current support and pending proposals. Most institutions have a template that can be used. If not, obtain one from a colleague who has submitted to NSF. Include funding or pending proposals from any source, not just NSF!
  5. Make sure your total time assigned across all of your funded proposals does not exceed 12 annual months / 9 academic months / 3 summer months. You likely should have less than this time assigned unless you are 100% research in your position.
  6. Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources. This provides documentation that the resources necessary for completing the proposed work are available at the institution of each PI/co-PI. Make sure to keep it narrative and simple; do not to include any monetary information as this may violate the cost sharing rules. I encourage obtaining a copy of a facilities document from a colleague at your institution who has already submitted to NSF and modifying it for your needs.
  7. Data Management Plan. This document details how data will be stored and shared and preserved into the future. Obtain a copy from a colleague or your institution.
  8. Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA). This document provides specific information to NSF about PI/co-PI affiliations. NSF provides a specific template that must be used:
  9. Other Documents that may or may not be required:
    • Postdoctoral Researcher Mentoring Plan. This is required only if a postdoctoral scholar is included in the budget. Obtain a copy from a colleague or your institution.
      1. Only one copy of the postdoc mentoring plan is submitted. This means that all institutions should combine their plans into a single document.
    • Letters of Collaboration. If consultants or other individuals are included in the project, you need to obtain letters of collaboration. These are very simple documents. As of January 2019, NSF suggests this format for the letter – do not include any additional information or your proposal may be disqualified:  “If the proposal submitted by Dr. [insert the full name of the Principal Investigator] entitled [insert the proposal title] is selected for funding by NSF, it is my intent to collaborate and/or commit resources as detailed in the Project Description or the Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources section of the proposal.”
    • Check the grant proposal guide for other documents for special programs and for warnings about submission of non-allowed materials!
  10. Project Description. This is the proposal itself.
    1. Most proposals are limited to 15 pages. Read the grant proposal guide linked above for information about special types of proposals that have different page limits and review processes.
    2. Read the grant proposal guide to learn about EAGERs, RAPIDs, and other opportunities.
    3. NSF requires a few sections be included in each proposal. Unless stated in the RFP, proposers have flexibility in their proposal format beyond the required sections described below.
    4. NSF has two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Proposals must contain separate sections for each of these criteria. The sections must be labeled Intellectual Merit; Broader Impacts.
    5. Read the RFP you are submitting to. Often, RFPs will contain specific details about other required sections of the proposal!
      • Find out if your institution will do a check of your proposal against the requirements. If not, find a colleague who will help you – often it is hard to see the details yourself after so much writing!
    6. Proposals must also contain a section detailing the Results of Prior NSF Funding.
      1. The prior work section is limited to five pages. Generally, the section should be shorter, however, since the description of the proposed work is the most important component of the proposal.
      2. Each PI/co-PI must be listed.
        1. If NSF funding has been obtained in the past 5 years, at least ONE NSF project must be described.
        2. The format of the funding description must look like this: Co-PI on two projects investigating entrepreneurship education and the lack of gender diversity among engineering students engaged in entrepreneurship training (DGE-1535011, Examining the Effect of Entrepreneurial Education Pedagogy on the Development of Women in STEM, $463,822, 8/15-8/18; IUSE-1504257, Investigating Entrepreneurship Education as a Means to Developing the 21st Century Engineer, $249,944, 6//15-5/18). Intellectual Merit: These projects will identify methods for assessment and causes of gender disparities in higher education entrepreneurship training. Broader Impacts: Findings will provide the foundation for studies examining the engagement of students of different backgrounds and gender, and help inform curriculum to engage a diverse community. Publications/Products: Hirshfield, et al., 2017; Huang-Saad et al., 2016; Huang-Saad, et al., n.d.; Morton et al., 2016; Shekhar et al., 2017.
          1. Note that Publications/Products can be Products, Publications, or both.
        3. All references included in prior work must be included in the References Cited document.
        4. State “No prior NSF funding” if no NSF funding has been received by a PI/co-PI.
        5. While NSF only requires description of ONE prior NSF grant, this does not preclude inclusion of more than one NSF grant or other grants. Generally, it is a good idea to include non-NSF funding for PIs/co-PIs with a record of grants, especially when these grants fit well under the proposed work.
          1. You have flexibility about how to describe this work since it is not NSF. That said, I encourage including at least the title, dollar amounts, and dates. Including the Intellectual Merit, Broader Impacts, and Publications/Products may be helpful if space allows:

Funding related to [proposal topic] The project team also has funding specifically related to sexual misconduct.

Jones has received funding from international government and charitable organizations for her research on [TOPICS]. Selected funding includes:

  • PI on a grant from GROUP (Title; dollars; dates)
  • Co-PI on a grant from GROUP (Title; dollars; dates)

11. Project Summary. This is a brief summary of the proposal. Three sections are required and only these three can be entered: overview, the intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and the broader impacts of the proposed activity.

  • NSF has a character limit for the project summary. The Fastlane system calculates a character count that is slightly different from WORD. A safe approach is to write one single-spaced page with 1-inch margins and 12-point times New Roman font. This will be close to the limit.


  1. Fastlane and have a common login. I prefer to use Fastlane since I am very familiar with it. Fastlane also has a long history of operation and therefore is less likely to glitch. is also only available for proposal submission for limited RFPs at this time.
  2. Proposals with multiple participating institutions can be submitted as a single proposal with subawards or as collaborative proposals. Determine if you are submitting as a sub or collaboratively.
    1. At many institutions, a single proposal with subawards results in overhead being charged on the first $25,000 of EACH sub. Only one annual report is due each year.
      1. If a single proposal is utilized, only the submitting institution officially submits to NSF. All documents from collaborators are uploaded by the single institution, including budgets.
      2. The submitting institution must submit the following documents for the PI and all co-PIs. Items in italics are submitted only by the lead institution on collaborative proposals, below.
        1. Cover Sheet
        2. Project Summary
        3. Table of Contents (Fastlane generates this automatically)
        4. Project Description
        5. References Cited
        6. Biographical Sketches
        7. Budget and Budget Justification
        8. Current and Pending Support
        9. Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources
        10. Data Management Plan
        11. Postdoctoral Mentoring Plan (if postdocs are included)
        12. Collaborators & Other Affiliations
  • The submitting institution will require a subaward agreement with subawardees. This usually looks like a scope of work describing in general what subawardees will do, a budget and budget justification, and a letter of agreement. You should connect the grants people between institutions to get this completed as per your institution’s guidelines.
  1. A collaborative proposal means funds are provided as separate grants to each institution and thus no extra overhead. Each institution must submit an annual report each year.
    1. If a collaborative proposal is utilized, choose one lead institution. Most documents will be submitted by that lead, but collaborators must create a proposal and submit their own documents.
      1. See above for list of documents submitted by the lead institution.
    2. The lead institution is linked to the collaborating institutions through proposal pins. The collaborating institutions create a pin for their proposal and provide the proposal ID and pin to the lead institution.
    3. The collaborating institution must submit ONLY the following documents through their proposal. The lead institution will submit all other documents.
      1. Cover Sheet
      2. Table of Contents (Fastlane generates this automatically)
      3. Biographical Sketches
      4. Budget and Budget Justification
      5. Current and Pending Support
      6. Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources
      7. Collaborators & Other Affiliations

The Geoscience Concept Inventory

Many people ask me for access to questions that have been developed over time as part of the bank of items that evaluate geoscience understanding. Here are item sets, including links to papers, that have been evaluated using item response theory approaches. This space will be updated as new items sets become available:

  1. Geoscience Concept Inventory Item Bank
  2. Climate Change Concept Inventory Item Set
  3. Earth Systems Science Item Bank

Geoscience Concept Inventory Item Bank
A valid and reliable bank of items designed for diagnosis of alternative conceptions and assessment of learning in entry-level earth science courses. Rasch analysis was used to generate a bank of items aligned with ability.

The online testing system for the GCI is no longer active. A word document containing original GCI items is available here: GCI_v3.April2011_origGCI. Instructors and researchers are encouraged to use these items freely and without restriction. Item numbers correlate to numbers in paper reporting on GCI Rasch analysis: Libarkin, J.C., Anderson, S.W., 2006, The Geoscience Concept Inventory: Application of Rasch Analysis to Concept Inventory Development in Higher Education: in Applications of Rasch Measurement in Science Education, ed. X. Liu and W. Boone: JAM Publishers, p. 45-73: LibarkinandAnderson2006

DESCRIPTION: The Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI) is a multiple-choice assessment instrument for use in the Earth sciences classroom. The GCI v.1.0 consisted of 69 validated questions that could be selected by an instructor to create a customized 15-question GCI subtest for use in their course. These test items cover topics related to general physical geology concepts, as well as underlying fundamental ideas in physics and chemistry, such as gravity and radioactivity, that are integral to understanding the conceptual Earth. Each question has gone through rigorous reliability and validation studies. Over TWENTY colleagues have contributed new questions to the item bank, bringing the number of available, high quality questions to almost 200.

We built the the GCI using the most rigorous methodologies available, including scale development theory, grounded theory, and item response theory (IRT). To ensure inventory validity we incorporated a mixed methods approach using advanced psychometric techniques not commonly used in developing content-specific assessment instruments. We conducted ~75 interviews with college students, collected nearly 1000 open-ended questionnaires, grounded test content in these qualitative data, and piloted test items at over 40 institutions nationwide, with ~5000 student participants.

In brief, the development of the GCI involved interviewing students, collecting open-ended questionnaires, generating test items based upon student responses, soliciting external review of items by both scientists and educators, pilot testing of items, analysis of items via standard factor analysis and item response theory, “Think Aloud” interviews with students during test piloting, revision, re-piloting, and re-analysis of items iteratively. Although time consuming, the resulting statistical rigor of the items on an IRT scale suggest that the methods we have used constitute highly valid practice for assessment test development.

Climate Change Concept Inventory Item Set

A valid and reliable assessment instrument designed for diagnosis of alternative conceptions and assessment of learning around climate change conceptions. Rasch analysis was used to validate the alignment of the item set with ability.

Two publications document the utility of this measure with respect to the general public and college students. Both studies considered the impact of conceptual understanding, affect and world views on risk perception.

a) College students: Aksit, O., McNeal, K., Gold, A., Libarkin, J., Harris, S., 2018, The influence of instruction, prior knowledge, and values on climate change risk perception among undergraduates: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 55, p. 550–572.

b) General public: Libarkin, J.C., Gold, A., Harris, S., McNeal, K., Bowles, R., 2018, A new, valid measure of climate change understanding: Associations with risk perception: Climatic Change., v. 150(3), p. 403-416.

Earth Systems Science Item Bank
A valid and reliable bank of items designed for diagnosis of alternative conceptions and assessment of learning around Earth’s spheres. Rasch analysis was used to evaluate the relationship of ability to items and to allow comparison of understanding within one sphere to another.

Publication of results and items is ongoing.

Learn more about geocognition and geoscience education research.

Research to Publication: Materials to Guide the Manuscript-Writing Process

I am teaching a new course this semester (Fall 2018) called Research to Publication. Hopefully, the students in the course will all write a manuscript by the end of the semester and submit it to either their co-authors or a journal! Stay tuned…I have promised a party if the course works…

I would like to share the materials I create for this course since writing academic manuscripts is honestly not something we are taught very well. I didn’t learn until well into my postdoc, and mostly by accident.

I am a big fan of open collaboration. If you have any suggestions for additions/changes, let me know! I have pasted the course outline below and will add materials as I teach them.

*Assignments are completed before the course meets that week.
The role of publishing; academic “currency” – who decides? READ (in general): Klingner et al., 2005
ASSIGNMENT: Try answering the following questions now, and revisit this discussion multiple times over the course of the semester.

  1. Why are you interested in learning how to write an academic manuscript?
  2. What do you feel like you still need to learn?
  3. Where else can you turn for assistance with your writing?
Identifying an appropriate journal READ: Where to Publish; Beall’s list
ASSIGNMENT 1: Take time to review the Where To Publish and Beall’s List websites. Consider what you have learned in the context of your own research.

  1. What, if anything, surprised you about Where to Publish and/or Beall’s List?
  2. Describe your area of research for your classmates.
  3. What will be important for you to consider as you choose a journal for your work?
  4. What questions do you have about publishing that your course colleagues might be able to help you answer?

ASSIGNMENT 2: Preparing to write…

  1. What is your manuscript topic? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Identify THREE journals that would be appropriate venues for your work. Explain why you have chosen these journals.
  3. Using Beall’s list, identify ONE journal that seems like it would be a good fit. DO NOT PUBLISH in these journals. I need this information for the WEEK 2 in-class activity!
Basic structure of an article DUE: Deconstruction of THREE articles in your target journal

READ/DISCUSS: Turbek et al., 2016; Perneger and Hudelson, 2004

Visualizing your manuscript! DUE: 12 VISUAL slides of your manuscript

READ: Rougier et al., 2014; Durbin, 2004

Writing research questions and methods DUE: Your research question(s) and methods

READ/DISCUSS: Kallet, 2004

Ethics and bias in the publication process DUE: Write up of THREE cases from

READ/DISCUSS: Gastel and Ray, 2016

Writing and visualizing results DUE: Your results in BOTH text and tables/figures aligned with questions, methods

READ/DISCUSS: Monash University guide

Authorship DUE: Authorship agreement and discussion with your advisor/collaborators

READ/DISCUSS: Shewan and Coats, 2010

Writing discussions and background DUE: Your discussion and background in parallel


Data Management and Publication DUE: Your Data Management Plan

READ/DISCUSS: NSF guide to data management plans; Gil et al., 2016; Costello, 2009

Editor Q&A (Janice Beecher) DUE: THREE questions for the Editor Q&A; Draft manuscript!

READ/DISCUSS: Kostic, 2016

Reviewing manuscripts DUE: Review of TWO manuscripts from classmates

READ/DISCUSS: Wiley guide; Scrimgeour and Prus, 2016

Preparing manuscripts for publication DUE: Revised and formatted manuscript


Reflecting on the process DUE: Submit that paper (to journal or your co-authors)!


The Academic Sexual Misconduct and Violations of Relationship Policies Database

Updated 9/15/18 to be crystal clear that I include violations of relationship policies within the database.

Over two years ago, I started tracking academic sexual misconduct and violations of relationship policies. I started the project in an attempt to address what I saw as a missing piece of media reporting on misconduct in academia. In general, the media reports on one case at a time, occasionally mentioning other cases although without any sense of the broader culture of sexual harassment within some areas of academia. Since I began tracking cases, the database has grown from a few dozen to over 700 evidenced cases.

Several people have used these data to conduct studies. I will list these here as they get published:

  1. Cantalupo, N. C., & Kidder, W. C. (2018). A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty. Utah Law Review, 2018(3), 4.

I have migrated the database from a list to a google sheet to facilitate broader use of these data. You can view the google sheet below, or view it in google by clicking on this link ACADEMIC SEXUAL MISCONDUCT DATABASE.

The database is very likely incomplete. If you would like to share an evidenced sexual misconduct case against a faculty, administrator, researcher, or similar university or research institute employee, you can submit it HERE. Please note that only cases with evidence of sexual misconduct can be included. PLEASE CHECK THE DATABASE CAREFULLY BEFORE SUBMITTING A NEW CASE.

  • Academic includes individuals who are employed in any setting where college or university students are working or studying.
  • Sexual misconduct includes: sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, stalking, violations of dating policies, violations of campus pornography policies, and similar violations
  • Evidence includes: institutional finding; admission on part of the accused, accused resigned/retired/died before an institution completed an investigation; a settlement by either the accused or the institution was reached with the victim/survivor; documented evidence (usually in form of texts or emails) of sexual misconduct exists; a legal finding of fact was made by a court, with or without legal punishment.

Sexual Harassment in 2018? Still Going Strong…

I thought it would be useful to put into context all of the cases of faculty/staff sexual harassment that are currently undergoing investigation or legal cases at US academic institutions. As always, these are only the cases that have somehow found their way into the media. Big shout out to student papers for bringing several of these to light! At last count, I documented 25 ongoing cases…

  2. 2018. Utah State University (Music School!). INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  3. 2018. Michigan State University (Dean!). ARRESTED/INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  4. 2018. Emporia State University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  5. 2018. University of Minnesota. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  6. 2018. Central Connecticut State University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  8. 2018. University of South Florida. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  9. 2018 (for incidents 1970s-1990s). Ohio State University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  10. 2018. California Polytechnic State University. LAWSUIT FILED.
  12. 2018. University of Pennsylvania. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  13. 2018. Northwestern. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  14. 2018. Fordham University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  15. 2018. University of New Mexico. LAWSUIT ONGOING (ACCUSED ALREADY RETIRED).
  16. 2018. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  17. 2018. University of South Carolina. LAWSUIT FILED.
  18. 2018. Wayne State University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  19. 2018. Garden City Community College. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  20. 2018. Harvard University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  21. 2018. Colorado State University. LAWSUIT FILED.
  23. 2018. Georgia Southern University. UNIVERSITY SYSTEM INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  24. 2018. New York University. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.
  25. University of Pennsylvania. INVESTIGATION ONGOING.



I have been quietly documenting sexual harassment cases in academia for over two years. In that time, I have created a database containing over 650 confirmed cases, plus over 80 cases undergoing investigation, in courts, or with hidden outcomes. Sexual misconduct in academia is the norm, not the other way around.

Want to learn about the impacts of sexual misconduct on the victims? A growing database of personal stories is now online – my own story to be added soon.

Which is all to say: stop arguing over whether or not this is a problem. Instead, look for solutions!

#MeToo #MeTooPhD #MeTooSTEM

Sexual Harassment and The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

It took me two hours (time I should have spent working on a grant proposal…), but I unearthed FIVE (5) confirmed sexual misconduct and ONE (1) ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct perpetrated by members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

(1) 2015: Geoff Marcy, Berkeley. RESIGNED, NOW EMERITUS FACULTY.  *Member of U.S. National Academy of Sciences, elected 2002;

(2) 2017 (for harassment complaint in 2016): Sergio Verdu, Princeton University. “RESPONSIBLE FOR SEXUAL HARASSMENT”. REQUIRED TO ATTEND TRAINING. *Member of U.S. National Academy of Engineering, elected 2007;

(3) 1995: Thomas Stamey, Stanford. PERMANENT REDUCTION IN PAY. *Member of U.S. National Academy of Medicine, elected 1985;

(4) 2007: Joseph Schlessinger, Yale. LAWSUIT SETTLED. AND *Member of U.S. National Academy of Medicine, elected 2005;

(5) 2018: Thomas Jessell, Columbia University. FIRED FOR VIOLATING CONSENSUAL RELATIONSHIP POLICY. *Member of U.S. National Academy of Sciences, elected 2002;

(6) 2018. Salk Institute (trains graduate students enrolled at UCSD). INVESTIGATION ONGOING AND ACCUSED ON LEAVE. *Accused is member of National Academy of Medicine, elected 1999;

Fixing Sexual Misconduct Investigations of Faculty, Staff, and Other Non-Students at Michigan State

Several months ago, I wrote memo to higher-ups at MSU detailing my experiences with the Title IX investigation process and the institutional response once a finding was made against the man who was found to have physically harassed me. Responses were mostly positive and affirmed my sense that some of the systemic issues with MSU’s response to sexual harassment were recognized and fixable. I have decided to post the text of the memos (with names and details redacted) in hopes that this can encourage deeper conversation both here at MSU and in other institutions where small changes could have big impact on sexual misconduct investigations and outcomes.


Feb 9, 2018

To MSU Administration:

Based on my recent personal experience with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) in filing a sexual harassment complaint (after being sexually [harassed] by an Emeritus Professor at a retirement event on campus), I have identified several reforms that would improve MSU’s sexual harassment complaint procedures.

I am hopeful that now is an opportune time to make sure my voice is heard as MSU works for positive reform. The negative effect of the sexual harassment itself was compounded by MSU’s current investigative process; in many ways, the investigation prolonged and added to the stress and trauma of the incident itself. While these negative impacts are ongoing, I chose to wait to send this memo until I felt that MSU was in a position to address my concerns. MSU’s reaction to sexual harassment complaints should incorporate a realization of the full impact sexual harassment can have on personal and professional lives, and I hope that MSU’s dedication to reform the sexual harassment investigative process will include changes in protocol, policies, and procedures. I offer six recommendations based on my experience:

  1. After my [harassment] was reported to OIE, I received an email from an investigator asking if I wanted to file a complaint. When I did meet with the investigator, the meeting focused entirely on the steps that would be taken in filing a complaint.
    • At the time, I was still traumatized by my [harassment] even though it had occurred several years earlier. Rehashing the [harassment] , even non-verbally, caused significant emotional trauma that might have been lessened if a support person trained in sexual harassment/assault had been provided.
      • Recommendation: Provide complainants with a support person to assist them through the process. These should be trained individuals who are either volunteers or are independent of the university. This would mirror recent legislation passed by the US House of Representatives to establish an office for victim advocacy.
  1. The availability and nature of the two types of procedures for Title IX investigations at MSU – informal and formal – was and remains unclear, even upon careful review of the written OIE Complaint Procedures.
    • In my case, the investigator did mention the informal and formal processes, but did not clearly: 1) explain that an informal or formal process was available; 2) ask if I wished to pursue an informal or formal process; and 3) explain what the outcomes of an informal or formal process would be.
      • Recommendation: Develop clear written guidance to explain the availability of informal and formal processes at the beginning of a meeting with an investigator, including what will and will not happen within the context of each process. This should include a clear question asking claimants which process they are interested in initiating.
      • [Note: I have since learned that the informal process was truly informal and did not exist in policy until after I filed my complaint. The recommendation stands, however, as it is still unclear what an “informal” process would look like and result in.]
  1. Anonymity was not maintained in my case after the report was sent to Academic Human Resources.
    • During the investigation, the investigator indicated that OIE had informed my Dean’s office that a complaint had been filed. At that time, I was assured that my name was not shared and that no one other than the Dean’s office was aware a complaint was being investigated.
    • Although I was notified when the report was finalized that it would be sent to Academic Human Resources, there was no further information about what this meant. As a Professor with a dozen years on campus, I was able to track down an appropriate contact in Academic Human Resources.
    • By the time I was able to identify and contact the appropriate person in Academic Human Resources, the entirety of my report had already been distributed to my Dean and my Chair[1]. This included my name as well as personal details about my health, and I was unaware that the report would be shared in this way.
    • Academic Human Resources and OIE offered conflicting information about who should have been contacted, with what information, and by whom. This resulted in additional stress on my part as my Chair and Dean were brought into the conversation.
      • Recommendation: Establish clear guidance for how OIE documents move through the university system, including procedures for notifying complainants and respondents when and to whom materials are distributed after an investigation is completed.
  1. The sanctioning process relies on unit administrators who are inexpert at handling sexual misconduct and who will have an inherent conflict-of-interest.
    • There are no procedures in place to protect complainants when they are housed under the same unit administrator as respondents. It is unlikely that a unit administrator can adequately and simultaneously protect a complainant and sanction a respondent. In my case, my Chair was in an impossible situation of being asked to protect a Professor while simultaneously needing to sanction an Emeritus Professor with significant name recognition (e.g., there is an Endowed Chair named after him). The Dean’s office was thankfully able to step in and offer a sanction that ensured I was protected; until it did, it was difficult to understand how the process was avoiding bias.
      • Recommendation: Move decision-making around sanctions out of the hands of the unit administrator. Sanctions should be determined by an impartial entity, and impartiality cannot be maintained within a unit that has a vested interest in protecting the complainant, or the respondent, or both. Sanctions can be determined by a panel, as occurs with students, or by the appropriate HR office, or through some alternative impartial entity.
      • Recommendation: Encourage complainants to articulate sanctions that they feel would be effective for their physical and emotional well being. Incorporate this perspective into decision-making. It is unclear in my mind how complainants are included, if at all, in most of the decision-making around sexual harassment findings.
  1. The limited sharing of information around the sanctioning process places complainants in unnecessary danger.
    • In my case, I was not informed when a letter detailing sanctions was sent to my [harasser]. My [harasser] showed up outside of my home and engaged my spouse (who did not know my [harasser]) in conversation while I fled the scene and notified the police. I later learned that this invasion of my privacy occurred close in time to the sending of the sanctions letter.
      • Recommendation: Provide complainants with notification whenever action is taken on the case.
  1. Finally, the lack of transparency around sexual harassment findings means that the community at large is not being protected from continued sexual harassment. In addition, colleagues unaware of sexual harassment incidents may unwittingly trigger their colleagues or students. In my case, [redacted] I am continually faced with reminders of the assault [redacted] (including at a faculty meeting this week). In other cases, serial sexual harassers may not be identified because 1) complainants are not informed of prior investigations and 2) individuals often come forward with complaints only after they learn of an ongoing investigation. Certainly, I have no way of knowing if my harasser engaged in sexual misconduct towards others and other potential victims have no way of knowing that a formal complaint was made against my harasser.
    • Recommendation: Establish mechanisms for alerting the community when an individual is found to have committed sexual harassment. Alerts might contain the harasser’s name and the specific violation under the sexual harassment policy. Transparency is the first step towards equity.

Implementing any of the above recommendations would improve the current system, and implementing all or most these recommendations would go a long way in protecting victims. I am hopeful that MSU will find space to support students, faculty, and staff who have been victimized by sexual, racial or other harassment. We as a community should honor lived experiences and incorporate experienced voices into the decision-making process.

[1] Guidelines for Issuing Disciplinary Sanctions: Faculty and Academic Staff became effective on April 26, 2017. This document explains that unit administrators are responsible for disciplinary action when faculty/staff are respondents in a complaint. This information was not available at the time of my complaint. Note that this document still does not provide information about how sanctions will be imposed on members of the MSU community who are non-employees (in my case, an Emeritus Professor).