Combatting Sexual Abuse and Assault by Teaching Respect

Marvin Parnes headshot

Marvin Parnes

Good parenting, in combination with a strong ethical foundation, led a young Marvin Parnes to take on the problem of sexual assault on Michigan's campus. "I had parents who cared about other people, who treated people with respect," says Marvin, who, after nearly four decades as a staff member at U-M, is now the Managing Director of the Institute for Social Research.

Marvin grew up blue collar in the Bronx. As a scholarship student at a private high school called Fieldston, he-and every other student-were required to take classes in ethics. After graduating from City College of New York in 1970 with a degree in English, he taught high school for a while, then worked at City College in student affairs and program development.

In 1973 he came to the University of Michigan, enrolled in the joint doctoral program in Social Work and Psychology, received his MSW, met his wife-to-be Jane Hassinger (long-term Women's Studies and Social Work faculty member and researcher at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender), and took a job at Counseling Services (now Counseling and Psychological Services).

There, he says, "I did counselling and clinical work. I also was very involved in developing peer counselling programs." His interest in counseling is ultimately what led him to be one of the cofounders SAPAC, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, located in the Michigan Union.

SAPAC came about, he says, because "there was a concern among students that the university wasn't providing enough explicit services for survivors of some kind of sexual assault."

"This was part of an emerging national consciousness," says Marvin.

Turbulent times

The 1970s were turbulent and changing times. Marvin, given his education, skills and ethical bent, was drawn in to issues involving relationships, conflict resolution and gender. He and Jane developed an assertiveness training program, and opened it to all students as a psychology course. He says the students (as well as the trained trainers) learned how to strengthen their communication skills, particularly with respect to intimate relationships. In 1984, as Assistant Director for Residence Education, Marvin initiated programs in sexual harassment prevention for residence hall staff.

Marvin explains that this was a time when the new regulations on sexual harassment were unfolding in the workplace.

"There was a need to train supervisors and others on these issues," says Marvin, who was increasingly called upon to provide training both within the university and in the community.

This was a time when institutions needed guidance and training in how to handle new gender roles and sexual freedoms. "A number of us," says Marvin, "including my wife, Jane, and Jim Toy were very active in trying to create educational programs to address these challenges."

During this period, Marvin also conducted what was likely the first session on HIV awareness. "There was a lot of emphasis then on how students were managing their personal lives," he says. Along with Jonathan Ellis, then on the staff of Canterbury House, he also conducted the first campus gay-straight men's group.

An interest in how to cultivate respectful norms

Before forming SAPAC, Marvin was interested in dating behavior and what amounted to sexual harassment or sexual assault, especially when students were drinking a great deal.

"When I moved from Counselling to Housing, I took a lot of those interests with me," he says. "So the training of residence hall staff gave me an opportunity to explore how we could help students to manage their relationships and, how to cultivate positive norms for building good ones."

"These are college students," he adds. "You don't dictate these things. But I was very interested in learning about how we can give people opportunities for learning about what they want, and how to be safe in their environments.

These explorations and conversations ultimately gave rise to the founding of SAPAC.

Institutional ambivalence and lack of understanding

"Institutions were ambivalent about how to respond to these challenges," says Marvin, "because there was a lot of fear that if we start to acknowledge that there is sexual assault on our campus, people, particularly parents, will feel unsafe and concerned about whether the university is doing enough to protect their children. There was a lot of confusion, as there often is in institutions, even when they are well-meaning. Some administrators simply didn't want to acknowledge the problem. "People said, 'Oh, it's not a big problem. It's only a couple of people.' There was a real lack of understanding of the changes in behavior. And of course this continues to be a challenge as recent well-publicized events related to sexual assaults on campuses around the country attest."

Sexual abuse and harassment continue to be issues of great concern on college campuses. Statistics show that 1 in 5 women will be the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault during her college years and young women in college experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence.

Marvin continued to consult and to do workshops. "We offered workshops for graduate students and faculty and departments," says Marvin. "We talked about policy, but also what happens in unequal relationships; the kind of discomfort people can cause each other. Again, there was a lot of tension."

Teachable moments

When he became Assistant to the Vice President for Research, and, later, Associate Vice President for Research, Marvin says he was still occasionally asked to engage in an 'educational relationship' with an offender. "Several times the office that dealt with sexual harassment would say, 'We have someone here who has been an offender, but we really have determined that they're not predatory.' The situations often involved really immature, socially awkward, people; sometimes even the woman who had been harassed agreed that she would be satisfied that her concerns had been addressed if there was a program available to effectively intervene with the harasser.

"These were either very junior faculty, or sometimes a doctoral student. I was not a therapist to them. But I met with them, give gave them reading lists, and suggested new ways for them to think about how they had been conducting their relationships. We'd have conversations. Sometimes they'd write a paper. It was consciousness-raising, and an attitude adjustment."

Happily SAPAC is thriving, providing "educational and supportive services for the U-M community related to sexual assault, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and stalking." It recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, an event Parnes was delighted to attend.

Marvin is a highly respected administrator on UM's campus, and throughout the state and the nation. His positive impact on research administration, UM's technology transfer program, and innovative interdisciplinary initiatives is well-known. Many agree that Marvin's warm relational style continues to empower people. "I grew up in a world where men hugged. I grew up in a world where women were respected, or else! My mother was a classic Jewish mother, very loving and outgoing. She conveyed to me and my two brothers, that everybody matters all the time. She was right, and this was her great gift to me.

"Everyone is entitled to respect."

Now forty years into his University of Michigan career, Marvin is the Managing Director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR), the nation's leading social science research institute conducting nearly $100M of research annually. He has worked extensively on the role and strategy of the university in regional economic development and serves on many committees and boards, including, the advisory board for the University of Michigan Zell-Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurship, and the Board of Directors of Fraunhofer USA. He is the past chair of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness & Economic Prosperity. He is a consultant to ArtsEngine at the University of Michigan and a member of the Research Committee of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru).

- Jan Schlain

Read about Jim Toy, who has worked tirelessly for more than 40 years advocating for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and others.

Ruth Addis worked with Marvin Parnes in Housing Division early on in her U-M career. Today, she is the executive director of ITS Human Resources, Communications and Organizational Development. See her story here:

See Public Servant Fights Domestic Violence, a profile of Kathleen Donohoe, University Human Resources associate director of Human Resources Strategy, Planning and Policy, who spent 20 years in the United States Coast Guard before beginning her U-M career as the director of the Sexual Harassment Policy Office.

For more information about SAPAC, visit: