Just Another Professor?
THE RETURN OF A professor punished two years ago by the University for sexually harassing a female subordinate has sharply divided the Government Department.
Although department officials and graduate students on the department's sexual harassment committee mutually condemn sexual misconduct, the students charge--with some validity--that the department has refused to protect them--or to let them protect themselves--against the fallout of sexual harassment cases.
The students specifically charge that the department, in assigning alleged sexual harassers to teach required or effectively required courses, could infringe upon their moral choice to disassociate from such professors. In fact, they say, in at least one case the department has done just that.
Although the controversy first arose as a hypothetical problem nearly two years ago, it was revived this fall when Latin American politics specialist Jorge I. Dominguez returned from a year's leave of absence. Dominguez was assigned to co-teach a seminar on comparative politics--the only course, students and department officials agree, which is designed to prepare graduate students for their general exams in the popular field. Students call the course "de facto required," though it is not specifically mandated to earn a degree.
The Government Department--the only one at Harvard ever to face public cases of sexual harassment by permanent faculty members--has become the focus of campus-wide and national attention.
And faculty members, particularly Chairman Robert D. Putnam, have spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to rid the department of this sexual harassment legacy. Committees have been established, counselors have been designated, firm statements condemning such abuse of power have been issued. In fact, Putnam admits, some professors criticize him for spending too much time on the sexual harassment issue, which he inherited when he became chairman last fall.
But such administrative decisions represent nothing more than the least the University should do. Such directives may help protect students from sexual harassment in the future, but they wholly disregard valid student fears that the past has caught up with the present.
AS A HUMAN BEING, a professor should know his ethical duty not to threaten or harass another human being. As a member of the Harvard faculty, he should also be acutely aware of his academic responsibilities not to abuse his power and status. When a faculty member has committed what by the University's (and our society's) standards is a morally objectionable act, members of the academic community are perfectly justified in hesitating, to consider him "just another professor."
He is not--at least not initially. The ability to return to the University and blend in among the faculty in students' eyes is a quality that must be earned; this status of normality cannot be magically conferred upon him simply because the University has levied what it considers sufficient discipline.
No degree of sanction--especially when handed down behind the closed doors of University Hall--is sufficient to assure students that "once a sexual harasser" does not necessarily mean "always a sexual harasser." Until an accused professor has proven that he will not abuse his authority, students should not feel compelled to sit in his classroom.
The sexual harassment committee members propose--and several graduate and undergraduate organizations collectively agree--that for five years after a sexual harassment finding is made students should have the choice to avoid all contact with the accused professor.
This is not an outlandish request. Our nation's courts parole prisoners solely on the condition that they prove, for a specified period of time, that they are capable of adhering to society's legal standards.
In theory, at least, one might detect a double standard.
But the issue is not so simple. "Paroling" professors found by the University to have committed sexual harassment would invite a host of logistical problems.
One of the stickier problems has in fact cropped up in this year's protest over the comparative politics seminar. The course is not required. But it is, students say, effectively required because the material is essential to success on the general exam in comparative politics.
Do students have to take the course? No. Do they feel compelled to take it? Yes.
From an administrative standpoint, department officials might reasonably argue that most courses cater to students' academic needs, or they wouldn't be offered. The department cannot be put in the position of having to draw lines, of having to decide which courses students believe integral to their knowledge of a specific field.
But, by the same token, students should not have to endanger their academic careers in order to express their moral disgust or to avoid a professor who has proven he has the potential to abuse his authority.
But again, from a practical stand-point, the disassociation issue is not so simple.
A university is financially limited in the number of instructors it can accommodate. Harvard is further limited by its commitment to finding the best scholars in a particular field. Often, therefore, departments have only one expert per academic specialty, as is the case with Dominguez in Latin American politics.
Graduate students' demands that departments be willing to hire an alternative to a certain professor appear, if for financial reasons alone, impractical from the University's stand-point. The granting of such a request is, unfortunately, doubly unlikely at a school with Harvard's rigorous scholarly standards.
Admittedly, logistics and ethics have created an impasse between the department and certain student groups.
Perhaps the most difficult issue, though, lies in the fact that much of what is proposed by students is not within the power of the Government Department to change.
THE DEAN OF THE Faculty of Arts and Sciences is vested with the responsibility to discipline faculty members found guilty of sexual harassment. The dean might in theory restrict an offender from teaching required courses (which former Dean Henry Rosovsky apparently never chose to do). But unless the dean levies such punishment, the department is powerless to dictate what a professor can and cannot teach because of a past offense.
Perhaps this loophole absolves the Government Department, but it does not clear the University from its obligation to weigh student requests for a disassociation statute.
The issue is not clear-cut. Many proposals--such as hiring alternative faculty members to cover for alleged sexual harassers--are downright impractical from a University standpoint.
Others--such as restricting certain professors from teaching courses required for a degree--might prove logistically tricky.
But the University must make an effort, whether overt or subtle, to recognize students' right to exercise moral objection, especially when the University itself has already voiced a similar moral objection.
To institute a principle of disassociation--for five years, or however long the University deems reasonable--might require as little as shuffling the assignment of certain professors to certain courses or as much as hiring another instructor for a limited amount of time.
In the case of the former, the University should allow departments not to assign alleged sexual harassers to courses specifically required for a degree. The department should approach effectively required courses, admittedly a more debatable issue, with a mind open to student concerns.
In the case of providing an alternative instructor, the University might or might not have to lower its rigorous hiring standards a bit in the name of expediency. It would no doubt have to shell out more money.
The expense, without a doubt, is merited.
It is high time for the administration to take action to curb student fears that they are being indirectly victimized by certain professors' objectionable pasts.