By their graduation, the class of 1984 left Harvard struggling with what seemed to be a growing problem: year after year, more women at the University were reporting incidents of sexual harassment.
Just months after the administration drafted a new policy that outlined procedures for reporting incidents of sexual misconduct, the University publicized for the first time that it would “reprimand” Government Professor Martin L. Kilson for allegedly attempting to kiss a freshman woman during his office hours.
Over the next four years, the Kilson case would open a pandora’s box. Two other incidents involving faculty members and students made headlines on a campus that had, up until that point, been largely silent on the issue.
“I know that the University’s policy in a way hadn’t really paid attention to that issue,” said University Professor Sidney Verba ’53, who was the associate dean for Undergraduate Education at the time. “There was a time when that whole notion didn’t even exist.”
But in 1984, the University could no longer afford to ignore what seemed to be a growing problem. Students and staff began raising concerns that the Harvard’s sexual harassment procedures were inadequate, leaving female students, staff members and junior faculty vulnerable on a campus disproportionately male in both senior faculty and high-level administrators.
During the 1983-1984 academic year, the government department established a committee to investigate incidents within the department, administrators facilitated informal meetings with student group leaders on the cases, faculty members, including Verba, presented a policy statement on the issue to the Faculty, and over a thousand students signed a petition lobbying for the creation of a University-wide office that would supervise the grievance process.
Meanwhile, a growing list of women began to come forward, with complaints ranged from inappropriate comments to what constituted, according to Government Professor Robert D. Putnam, “a crime.”
A DEMAND FOR DISSOCIATION
Seniors in the class of 1984 returned to Harvard in the fall to another shock. Popular Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez had been implicated in the second sexual harassment scandal in two years—this time, the case involved a junior faculty member and a female graduate student.
Unlike the two incidents that came before it, students and Dominguez’ colleagues remember this case presenting a unique challenge to University officials desperately trying to assuage a hemorrhaging wound that the harassment cases had opened. Dominguez, widely considered the department’s foremost expert on Latin American politics, taught Government 2105: “Field Seminar in Comparative Politics,” a class that would be necessary for almost any government student preparing for general exams in that field.
Putnam said that the Department assigned him to co-teach the course with Dominguez to minimize the controversy surrounding his continued teaching presence, even as they were unwilling to take disciplinary action against the University’s sole expert in Latin American politics at the time.
In the months after the Dominguez incident went public, female graduate students began demanding that the University allow them to “dissociate” from individuals implicated in sexual misconduct. Students could then be exempt both from required enrollment in that instructor’s class and from facing that professor on an exam board. The policy was endorsed by the recently formed eight-student Government Department Sexual Harassment Committee, the Graduate Student Council, Women in Science, and the Radcliffe Union of Students.
OPENING UP A PAINFUL DIALOGUE
The administration had consistently stopped short of revoking a faculty member’s coveted tenure appointment on account of sexual harassment accusations, however. It would not make that move until early 1985, when Government Professor Douglas A. Hibbs Jr. was forced to resign, making him the third faculty member in the government department to be publicly accused of sexual misconduct in a six year period.
“They were a huge deal,” Ann Pellegrini ’86, Radcliffe Union of Students President in 1985, said of the cases. But she added that “one positive thing that came out of them was conversation. People were talking about sexual harassment.”
The Dominguez incident was closely followed by a University-wide survey of student, faculty, and staff experiences with sexual harassment, that was spearheaded by Verba, who was then the dean of undergraduate education and an academic expert in political polling methodologies.
“The survey raised people’s consciousness as a way of finding what was going on campus. That led to greater awareness of the issue on the part of students and faculty,” Verba said.
Indeed, just a month after the Dominguez case appeared on its radar, the administration released the results of the survey—one-third of all female students reported experiencing sexual harassment at Harvard, but almost none of these women was willing to file a formal complaint.
“Things were more under the table [in the 1980s],” said Gabrielle Gropman, a member of Harvard’s departmental staff. “If there was an incident of harassment at the time, it would be very likely that a woman wouldn’t know where to turn.”
The University set out to develop an administrative procedure for investigating reports of harassment, a structure which prior to 1984 was virtually non-existent. But the survey, which revealed incidents ranging from criminal assault to inappropriate joking on the part of male authority figures, was unable to offer a single, comprehensive definition of sexual harassment for campus officials.
According to Verba, one challenge of creating a sexual harassment policy, then, was to distinguish between criminal offenses and more casual cases of insensitivity, while at the same time discouraging both with equal seriousness.
Verba’s work was a pivotal component of the effort to raise awareness on campus and encourage a shift away from the passive recognition of previous generations toward outspoken condemnation.
“We were changing a whole culture in which it was okay to have dates with your students and it was okay to have long private conversations with female students behind closed doors,” said Putnam, adding that he now keeps the door open when he meets privately with female students.
But despite the success in attracting new attention to harassment, Pellegrini notes that the victory is only a partial one. “It’s obviously important for the college to have sexual harassment policies and guidelines,” Pellegrini said. “But if colleges and universities think this addresses the problem of gender hierarchy, they’re wrong. Sexual harassment is part of gender hierarchy but it’s not isolable from larger questions about women in the university.”
THE LEGACY OF A TRANSFORMATION
By the end of the 1984, calls for a central office to address harassment concerns were reinforced by the recommendation that the University create and ombudsman office
that would serve to codify harassment procedures and offer a clear resource in addition to the department heads, senior tutors, and advisers who were already available to handle potential complaints.
Gropman said that the fruits of these labors is a Harvard much more aware of harassment when she retired in 2003 than when she first arrived in in 1983.
Few sexual harassment cases have been publicized at since the mid-1980s, but Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Director Sarah Rankin said that harassment still happens.
According to Rankin, current cases remain private because the University’s sexual harassment policies have improved so students can resolve their problems within the system rather than outside of it.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences now publishes an official set of procedures for harassment complaints, and there are designated sexual harassment officers who can counsel victims and guide them through the formalities of addressing their grievances.
“I do think it’s a good process,” said Director of the Harvard College Women’s Center Susan B. Marine, who is currently the designated officer for undergraduates. “I’ve seen it work before and I think it was manageable for the students involved.”
But since Marine became the designated officer in January, no undergraduate has come to her regarding sexual harassment.
Putnam, chair of the Government Department at the time of the Dominguez allegations, said he knows of no sexual harassment cases within the department since the mid-1980s, and he attributes the rarity of these incidents in recent years to a shift in societal norms.
“Its a lot like the civil rights revolution--once its all over, you think how could people have tolerated having separate drinking fountains for black and white people? How could anybody have allowed a situation where women who were students would be exploited by older men?” said Putnam.
But Marine and Rankin also emphasize that many students may still experience harassment but not come forward. According to Rankin students may be afraid of burning bridges if they complain about faculty members, especially if they want recommendations from professors.
Still, Marine agrees that harassment is probably rarer now than in the 1980s.
“There’s much more clarity now about what’s legal and not legal, what’s advisable and not advisable, in terms of how faculty and students interact,” Marine said.
Putnam’s retrospective echoed a similar sentiment. “The women who are coming back to celebrate their 25th represent that cohort in American life as we were moving from one older
male-dominated world into a world that is more gender-blind,” Putnam said.
—Staff writer Edward-Michael Dussom can be reached at email@example.com
—Staff writer Danielle J. Kolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org