The Price of Privacy


WHEN WORD got out last week that Jorge I. Dominguez, a tenured professor in Government, has been discriplined for sexually harassing an assistant professor in the department, many people were stunned. Their sickened surprise is testimony to just how far Harvard still has to go to combat the problem of sexual harassment.

Despite extensive campus debate on the issue last year, many students, faculty and administrators seem to view the Dominguez case as an isolated incident. Informed opinion (and common sense) dictate otherwise: Although relatively few formal complaints are made each year, more than 80 cases were directly or indirectly reported last year and many more doubtless go altogether unreported.

Sadly, Harvard's current policies do more to encourage that break this pattern. By refusing to release information about specific cases or establish a clear and public scale of penalties, the University tacitly discourages harassment victims from bringing their complaints forward by letting them think their situation is not only rare but somehow shameful, to be kept quiet. And by suppressing the names of professors found guilty of harassment and the punishments meted out to them. Harvard undermines its official contentions that sexual harassment is a serious issue, making deterrence minimal.

If the University is confident enough of the facts of a case to rule that a complaint has merit, it should not balk at disclosing information about the charge and subsequent penalties--including the harasser's name, except in cases where such disclosure would harm the victim. As long as harassment complaints are kept strictly confidential, harassers will feel no pressure to alter their behavior and victims will be reluctant to come forward with their charges. Furthermore, Harvard's insistence that sexual harassment is somehow a "family matter" to be handled discreetly only confuses the fundamental issue: Sexual harassment is not only wrong but in many cases also illegal.

The Government Department's decision last week to form a committee to examine the problem of sexual harassment is a positive step toward combatting the problem. The committee's very existence reflects the department's willingness to realize that harassment is a widespread occurence that must be addressed seriously. Equally promising was the Faculty Council's attention to the issue last spring, culminating in a harassment poll distributed to 3800 undergraduates.

The importance of stopping sexual harassment cannot be underestimated. Earlier publicized cases, as well as last year's Faculty Council discussion, have focused attention on the plight of undergraduate harassment victims. The recent case illustrates that the problem is no less severe for graduate students and faculty member s, who, because they work in a narrow area of study cannot avoid continued interaction with the harasser. Women scholars at Harvard have found the path to tenure difficult enough: the added problem of sexual harassment threatens to ensure that the University's faculty will remain predominantly male.

The incidence of sexual harassment is probably no worse here than at other universities, but it is foolish to assume Harvard is immune to the problem. If last week's news comes as a disturbing surprise to most, then what is most shocking is that the University has not done more to call attention to the issue--and to stop it.

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