Sexual Harassment: New Policy But Old Problems
When a woman student enrolled in a small departmental course this fall required for her concentration, she looked forward to working closely with an eminent scholar. But in the first few weeks of class, she quickly came to realize that close contact with this professor might offend her personal dignity more than it would ever aid her academic growth.
The professor singled her out in the class, she says, staring at her pointedly during class and trying to keep "a close physical presence" after class. When she went to his office hours to discuss course material, he put his arm around her. The professor lived in her House and he made a point of plunking his tray down next to her at breakfast. One morning he scrutinized her blouse front so obviously the student's sister, sitting at the same table, commented with distaste about his behavior later. Finally she heard the professor had tried to grab and kiss another woman in the course. She could sit by silently no longer; she reported him to her senior tutor, filed an official complaint with the University and dropped the course.
Although other women have described at least a dozen such incidents to the Crimson, only two women--one is the case cited above--have filed official complaints with the College under a procedure established a year ago. The women give a number of reasons for looking the other way. Some fear academic repercussions, or humiliation before skeptical administrators ("No one will believe me," one woman said") but many others are unaware the procedure exists.
Students who feel sexually harassed may report the case to Judith B. Walzer, assistant dean of the College for co-education, who will investigate the case through confidential discussions with the student, the senior tutor or adviser. Under the procedure, Walzer then reports her finding to Dean Fox, who in turn reports to Dean Rosovsky. If the case is termed "of great seriousness," then Rosovsky will meet with the professor implicated and decide whether to discipline the faculty member. Dean Rosovsky notes he has three courses of action open to him if he finds a complaint is justified. He may officially reprimand a professor; formally charge him before the Corporation, which may revoke his tenure; or place him on a medical leave of absence.
Dean Fox says once students have a chance to talk about their experiences, "they often don't find it necessary to proceed to an official complaint." He added that simply recognizing that the problem exists is new at the University. He recalls how a generation ago it was assumed a sexual harassment victim would deal with the problem on their own.
The procedure appears in the student handbook, in information for instructors and the Graduate School bulletin. Walzer has distributed copies to senior tutors and senior advisers and informed the mental health services department of the University Health Services (UHS). Nevertheless, the information is slow in filtering down to students.
Although most semior tutors and senior advisers know about the procedure, many proctors have only a vague notion of the options open to students. In UHS, Nadia B. Gould, who counsels students on sex-related problems, says she is unaware of any officially-approved procedure, although she would probably refer them to Walzer. Walzer says although she reviewed the procedure with proctors in 1978, she may need to go over the process more frequently to make sure proctors know where to send students for advice.
Mary Holland '81, who works at the Women's Clearinghouse, established this year to offer information on women's issues, says many students are unaware that Walzer is the dean to seek out on these issues.
Consequently, many students--particularly freshman--who experience sexual harassment do not know where to go for help. Many feel isolated and frustrated by the feeling they cannot turn to any adult.
Loree L. Farrar '81 recalls her helplessness after visiting a professor's office last year. He approached her as she left the office and "gave me a slobbering kiss on the mouth." She backed out the door and ran out. Farrar did not report the incident even though he telephoned her throughout the year to ask her out for lunch. She continued to refuse, pretending not to recognize the sexual implications, hoping he would finally give up. Farrar says she did not go to a dean because she though "it would have been his (the professor's) word against mine."
Farrar says she did not know that Walzer's responsibilities included handling sexual harassment cases. "If I had known there had been a place to go, I would have gone, "Farrar says adding she is considering filing a complaint now, if only to show the administration "this is not an isolated incident." If she had known that other women experience sexual harassment, she says she would "have felt much more comfortable about filing a complaint."
Many students naturally turn to a senior tutor for help, but women have found their tutors' reactions differ remarkably. Some senior tutors will advise their students to work it out with the professor before filing a complaint, but many women respond that they rarely feel emotionally ready to negotiate with an authority figure who clearly has the academic upper hand. Stephen R. Lundeen, senior tutor at Dunster House, points out that often advisers will argue, "Look, this is the real world. That's life, you have to learn to cope with it." Lundeen says he usually tries to stay out of it, referring the problem to Walzer.
Laura Gordon Fisher, senior tutor of Eliot House, says she has handled several cases, observing although she hasn't had very many cases, "that doesn't mean it doesn't go on." As a senior tutor for seven years, Fisher recalls a time when "one didn't hear very much about it, at least not in the senior tutor's office." Fisher says she believes setting up an official channel is useful, if only because it establishes that sexual harassment is a recognized problem.
The student cited in the introduction, whose professor harassed her at breakfast and in class, received no encouragement from her senior tutor when she turned to him for help.
When she told him she wanted to drop the course, he asked her how she would explain a withdrawal notation on her transcript to graduate school interviewers. She replied she would tell them exactly what happened; the senior tutor looked skeptical and challenged, "Don't you think you are standing on shaky ground?"
He eventually agreed to bring her case to the Administrative Board (Ad Board), which must approve course withdrawals. He then wrote her a letter informing her that the Ad Board approved her request. The ambiguously-worded instruction--such as one section that stated that it "would be completely inappropriate for you to interject the specifics of your 'special circumstances' in future discussions within the University"--worried the student. She feared the letter--an official part of her University records--implied psychological problems on her part rather than a straightforward case of sexual harassment. She asked her senior tutor to rewrite it, making it more specific, but he refused. The letter, she says, gave her the chilling feeling that she was being hushed up;she eventually spoke to the head tutor of her department and other women anyway.
Ruth Hubbard, professor of Biology, who teaches courses on women's issues, questioned the administration's policy of keeping the cases strictly confidential if a woman student wants to talk. Keeping the case under wraps, she argues, protects only the Faculty. "Enough students have been hurt because Faculty members have stood up for each other," Hubbard says. To protect students, Hubbard believes "publicity and expose" are most effective. Disciplinary action, although sometimes necessary, is not as important as publicizing the cases because "spotlighting will eliminate the vast majority of the cases," Hubbard says.
Walzer defends the need for confidentiality, however. "Students do need that protection, not simply against accusations of slander, but against everyone knowing the details of their personal life," she says. She adds professors should also be given the courtesy of confidentiality while a charge is investigated. Rosovsky agrees, adding, "we're not out to protect anyone."
One graduate student told of the repercussions of speaking out. In her senior year here, she attended a dinner at a professor's home along with the professor's colleagues and graduate students. After the dinner, she says the professor humiliated her by "coming on to me sexually in front of his peers." The student talked to Walzer and others. Word got gack to the professor, who falsely accused her of taking official faculty action against him and told others in the department she was an hysterical woman, not to be trusted. When she requested a recommendation from him--he is a key scholar in her field--he delayed until the last moment, then sent her a "very ugly" letter saying he had written the recommendation but reprimanding her for "mistreating him."
Other harassment may take the form of embarrassing the student without making an advance. Allyson A. Gonzalez '83, says when she went to see a professor in his office, he insisted on using the bathroom while still talking to her, leaving the door open. Gonzalez and other students say from now on, if they need to visit his office, they will bring someone with them.
Many "sexual harassment" cases are less clear cut. Professors' requests to "go for coffee" are often no more than a simple gesture of friendship, a desire to know students on an informal basis. In these cases, most students resolve the problem by either speaking directly to the professor or negotiating through the senior tutor.
On the other end of the spectrum are the clearly offensive cases Faw of these incidents involve physical sexual harassment beyond a kiss. In these cases, however, the students were able to get away befor the advances escalated.
Cynthia Dahlin, a graduate student and member of the Women Students' Coalition (WSC) is working on a graduate student survey on sexual discrimination, including cases of sexual harassment. In speaking with women through her affiliation with WSC, she noted a tendency among women at the University to look on their problem as an isolated case. "They don't understand it's a pervasive pattern. They see it as a personal thing."
When women begin to publicly discuss and compare their experiences, they begin to see that pattern. Lundeen and others, however, say speaking openly can easily degenerate into "destructive gossip." But most women who have encountered sexual harassment at the University are more interested in having it stop than they are in smearing a professor's name. As Farrar says, "My goal was not to get him (the professor) into trouble; my goal was to get out of it unscathed."