Stepping Backwards


AFTER TAKING STEP forward on the issue of sexual harassment, the Faculty Council now appears poised to take several paces backward.

The council this fall re-opened discussions on its sexual harassment policy and, most recently, has been weighing a proposal by Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Sidney Verba '53 to establish a comprehensive harassment policy that includes a provision for a central office to handle complaints Initial support for the proposal appeared strong, but a recent straw vote taken at a meeting of the council's steering committee showed a majority in opposition to the creation of such an office.

This apparent change of heart is unfortunate on several counts Although no one factor will "solve" the problem of harassment, a central office could provide a significant improvement over existing, decentralized channels. It would be more visible to victims, and would be better prepared to track repeat harassers, an all too frequent phenomenon Perhaps most important, a central office would demonstrate an institutionalized commitment to deterring future harassment and correcting current abuses establishing a trust between the University and those concerned with the problem of harassment that has been sorely lacking of late.

Stressing informal handing of harassment complaints, as the proposal before the council does, without including the bolstering force of a central office, promises no improvement over existing procedure Most likely, it would actually weaken existing channels--clearly inappropriate in light of the University survey released last fall indicating widespread sexual harassment.

But perhaps the most serious council reverse revealed last week was the apparent backslide faculty attitudes toward sexual harassment Critics of the proposal for a central office reportedly cited fears that the office would have a vested interest in generating complaints. One member explained, "there is a worry that there is a fine line between a clearinghouse and the beginnings of a witch hunt."

Although concerns about the potential abuses of harassment complaints cannot be dismissed entirely, to regard such a threat as the rule, not the exception, is absurd. Last fall's survey indicated that even students or faculty members who had suffered egregious harassment tended to be reluctant to report the incidents. Clearly the University's foremost concern must be to encourage reporting--not to discourage it.

On a broader level, the council must not let peripheral isues or a simple weariness with debate--which has continued, intermittently for more than two years--divert if from the very real and very immediate concern of harassment.