The Issue in Perspective


In the wake of the recent announcement that Professor of Government Douglas A. Hibbs Jr. will resign over accusations of sexual harassment, it is necessary at this time to put the incident in its proper perspective. First, his resignation should and, indeed, must serve as a clear signal that sex discrimination and sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination--will not, cannot, and ought not be legated at a University, such as Harvard, which has hopes of truly achieving its goals of co-education. Second, because neither the exact nature of the allegation concerning Hibbs or the extent to which the University placed direct pressure on him to resign has been publicly disclosed, it is wholly unproductive to concentrate on the particular of an incident in question which so little is now known and concerning which little more information may be expected. Suffice it to say that the nature of the incident in question was serious enough ultimately to result in Hibbs's resignation. Far more productive, then, is a movement away from particularistic and speculative emphasis on the Hibbs case towards an understanding of the general circumstances which contribute to sexual harassment.

To this end, it is important to consider that sexual harassment does not occur it, a vacuum. As stated above, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination:

Sexual harassment is considered to be sex discrimination because these barriers to educational opportunity are encountered primarily although not exclusively by women. This is partly because most positions of authority are still held by men, and partly due to pervasive sexism. For example, sexual harassment is often an expression of hostility to a woman being out of her place,' or is a result of viewing women as sexual objects, rather than is student or scholars (From the Tell Someone brochure. Radcliffe Union of Students and Harvard College, 1983)"

Consequently any attempt to deal effectively with the problem of sexual harassment must begin with the recognition that, fundamentally, sexual harassment is a socio-political, rather than sexual, issue Harvard, the socio-political climate which eaves rise to sexual harassment can best be described by the following statistic currently only 23 (5.8 percent) censured faculty are women. There is a huge discrepency between this figure and the fact that approximately 40 percent of the student population is composed by women. And while the percentage of women who are junior faculty members is higher they of women with teaser there is primarily a position of powerlessness. Thus, the overall private at the University is one in which co-operation exists on the level of student populace rather than faculty appointments.

With so few women in visable positions of authority, it is not surprising that a 1983 University, wide survey revealed that nearly one third of all female respondents (undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members) had experienced some form of sexual harassment while at Harvard it becomes apparent, then, that there must be a direct relationship between these numerous incidents of harassment and the significant imbalance in power of men (i.e. men in a position of authority) vis a vis women. Ignoring the systemic roots of sexual harassment, that is ignoring this power imbalance, leads to a situation where sexual harassment, the symptom, is treated as the disease itself. Sexual harassment must not be taken out of context. Just as the higher incidence of crime in depressed areas may not be divorced from the the-socio-economic conditions which influence the statistic, sexual harassment may not be seperated from its larger framework, namely a university top-heavy with male faculty, leaving women in positions of powerlessness and vulnerability. The continuing position of women as the "lesser, as the "subordinate" in student-faculty and faculty faculty professional relationships only exacerbates the already pressing problem of sexual harassment at Harvard. True co-education mean not only that male and female students learn side by side but that women and men teach side by side too. Until such a time when women are accepted as full and equal peers and colleagues, until male and female students have role models of both sexes, professional relationships between faculty members as well as student-faculty relationships will continue to be bounded by and limited to the realm of the sexual. (In this context, it is easy to infer that student peer harassment is part and parcel of the power imbalance which exists on the faculty level.)

If sexual harassment is merely the symptom and power imbalance, the disease, how are we to attempt a cure? Obviously, the University is not going to rush out and tenure x-number of women so as to balance numerically the tenured male faculty. Nor does it appear that a Women's Studies Program under whose auspices the different experience of women might be appreciated and our own voice heard is imminent at the University. Additionally, neither of the above is necessarily a panacea, curing all of Harvard's co-educational ills, of which sexual harassment is but one. Because no aggregate cure may be satisfactorily attempted, it becomes necessary to try to remedy such problems as sexual harassment on an individual basis. This piecemeal approach is acceptable as long as the web of interconnection among serious problems at the University (e.g. the relationship between sexual harassment and a male power elite) is recognized. Only through such recognition can the compartmentalization of sexual harassment, and a tunnel-vision approach to its remedy, be avoided.

Having touched on the systemic roots of sexual harassment. I think it appropriate to mention some possible ways to alleviate the situation at Harvard University. Clearly, no solution will be found without large-scale education. These educational efforts must be twofold: first, some demystification of sexual harassment (i.e. sexual harassment, like rape, is primarily an issue of power, not of sexual attraction); second, information concerning the procedure for lodging formal complaints of sexual harassment must be broadly known and disseminated. To these ends, the Radcliffe Union of Students will take the following measures: a mailing of last year's Tell Someone brochure to every undergraduate, both male and female (men have a large stake in this issue as well, for they too are victims of sexual harassment; moreover, in their capacity as lovers or friends of undergraduate women, male students are directly affected by the harassment of female students); coordinating workshops with Response, or some other qualified group, for the tutors of every residential house at the Colleges to educate them on both the nature of sexual harassment and the formal procedure for lodging a complaint of same. Additionally, student groups must work together to provide a Victim Advocate who will lend emotional support and legal counsel to the victims of sexual harassment. This Victim Advocate must be chosen by and, if necessary, funded through students, for no individual on the payroll of the University can fully represent a student who, in filing a formal complaint against an officer of the University, is implicitly challenging the University itself.

While Harvard University is to be commended for the actions taken in the Hibbs case, nonetheless, it must not be lulled into complacency. Sexual harassment is in no way limited to the Government Department. Although three of the five publicized cases of harassment occurred in that department, these were by no means the only cases University wide. According to figures cited in the Crimson, there were more that 84 informal complaints of sexual harassment made by undergraduates at the Colleges in the 82-83 academic year alone. That none of these informal complaints developed into formal charges does not suggest that the incidents were somehow "less serious," or the accusations "spurious." Rather the implicit suggestion is one or both of the following: the emotional and academic costs of lodging a formal complaint are too high, or the procedures themselves are too little known or understood to be effective. Procedures for filing a formal complaint must not be so labyrinthine that students know not whether they are advancing towards or away from the Minotaur. It is up to University officials, in concert with interested student groups (and I daresay that all students ought be interested in the succesful resolution of sexual harassment problems), to lead the victim through this maze of procedural obstacles, bringing him or her through the experience emotionally and academically unscathed. The Pandora's box of sexual harassment has been opened: let not the University slam the lid shut once again.