Silent Policy Just Makes it Worse
LAST WEEK Harvard University announced that a tenured professor of government had tendered his resignation following a sexual harassment complaint filed in December 1984. In a carefully worded statement, presumably cleared with all parties involved, Harvard announced that 40-year-old Professor of Government Douglas A. Hibbs Jr. will resign his tenured post at the end of a medical leave of absence granted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
In addition The Crimson reported that the complaint was filed by a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Crimson also reported that a former member of the Harvard Faculty had announced her intention to file a complaint against Hibbs.
The unprecedented announcement apparently marked both the first time ever that a tenured Harvard professor--whose employment is more or less guaranteed until age 70--resigned over allegations of sexual harassment and the first time the University had officially confirmed that action had been taken on a specific case of harassment.
The action differed from the way the University and the Faculty dealt with a similar complaints of harassment two years ago involving Professor of Government Jorge I. Dominguez. According to published reports, Dominguez was stripped of a prestigious committee chairmanship, but not of his tenure. Since that time, Harvard has refused to confirm or deny the incident or punishment, saying only that a serious case of harassment took place.
The public announcement has drawn kudos from, among others, a number of student leaders and the editorial board of The Boston Globe.
They have praised Harvard for taking an affirmative step in combatting what a number of recent studies have shown in is a major problem for women on the nation's campuses in general, and in Harvard's Government Department specifically, where the Hibbs case is the third to come to light in the past six years.
Yet, according to all the information currently on the public record, there is no evidence that Harvard took any positive action to investigate the case or to punish Hibbs. Rather, there is reason to believe that Harvard may have been impelled by threats of further action by one of the two women involved or by MIT itself to release the 97-word statement.
Quizzically, Harvard has refused even to confirm or deny that it followed Faculty procedures set up in the wake of the Dominguez case to handle future incidents of harassment.
The University's failure to clarify the circumstances of Hibbs's resignation and its own statement, or the procedures used to deal with the MIT student's complaint at the very least shows that Harvard is not yet ready to deal in good faith with current or future victims of harassment. The University's claim that privacy interests bar any further comment on the case neatly sidestep the public issues at stake. Harvard's ongoing silence about crucial aspects of the Hibbs case reeks of cynical damage control.
OF COURSE, the privacy concerns of many of the parties involved--not least the two women--far outweigh the public's need to learn the details of this sordid story. It is important that the University and the press understand how traumatic it is for victims to stand up to their harassers.
However, there is a wide gap between what is currently on the public record about the Hibbs case and what would violate the privacy interests of the two women.
If the Hibbs case is to serve as a proper guideline for current and future victims of sexual harassment, a number of questions need to be answered:
*Were the University's official procedures designed to deal with sexual harassment used, and if so, did they work?
*What degree of sexual harassment must occur to result in dismissal from the Faculty? What are the punishments for the different sorts of harassment?
*Should Harvard, in the face of widespread doubt that it is serious about dealing with sexual harassment, have signed an agreement with Hibbs barring any further discussion of the case?
Without answers to these and numerous other questions, the resignation of Douglas Hibbs will serve as little more than a sad reminder that Harvard can be a miserable place for women to make their way in the world.