Sexual Harassment: The Complaint Process

Having been for three years the heating officer in the Faculty's process lot resolving complaints of sexual harassment I welcomed The Crimson's invitation to say a little more than I think is generally understood about that process and my role in it and to make some general observations as well. There has been considerable attention to the topic of late both because of the inherent interest of the topic and also in response to the recent letter from Henry Rosovsky dean of the Faculty to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

First, in the role of the Assistant Dean as "hearing officer" under the Faculty's procedure for resolving complaints by students. my basic task is to ascertain what actually occurred between the two parties. Looking back on my experience of the past three years. I am struck by the fact it has only rarely been difficult to establish the facts. Yet I have usually found it to be the case although it has the ring of cliche that the behavior complained about is interpreted very differently by each party. In order to establish the facts, I strive to be objective and unprejudiced: I cannot make assumptions about the behavior or the motivations of either party.

It has however been said that the role of the Assistant Dean is too complicated or even conflicted. According to this argument because my findings of fact ordinarily have a significant effect on the outcome. I am unable to offer non-judgement support to a student with a complaint against a faculty member. There is an understood more clearly. As the "hearing officer" of fact-finder at the first step of the process my function is in some ways analogous to that of a police officer in, let us say a rape case.


The main concerns are "What happened" and "What forms of response are available." Most students need more than that kind of help in what is, by its very nature, a painful or troubling process Other kinds of help are more appropriately sought from others who have no formal role in the complaint process Senior Tutors, Senior Advisers or other friends are able to provide emotional support that complements my procedural efforts In fact, almost every student who has come to talk with me about an instructional relationship made troubling by some "amorous" aspects, or by sexual correction, has already had the benefit of the wise and discreet encouragement of a trusted advisor In making complaints of sexual harassment as in other difficulties students should avail themselves of different kinds of help from various sources in the College.

The recent focus on the formal complaint procedures has obscured it seems to me a fact about my work that might be worth stating here. Most of the students who talk to me about instructional relationships made awkward by considerations of sex do not want to lodge formal complaints. Most come to me at or near the end of the term in which their situation became troubling and the most desirable goal is to leave it behind them without suffering adverse consequences such as a poor grade. In such cases, students may want advice rather than intervention. For example, they may want advice in writing a letter to the offending instructor as I often suggest students do.


Of the two dozen or so students who have consulted me in each of the past three years only two or three have decided that they wish to lodge a formal complaint about six or eight have wished my active help in neutralizing the evaluator situations in which they find themselves situations in which they find themselves: and the rest have wished counsel in handling a situation themselves or to discuss in retrospect ways they might have handled a situation now past. In the past three years only two undergraduates have pursued formal complaints to the end of the Faculty's process. The Dean of the Faculty took action in one: on action was taken in the other because of insufficient evidence that wrong doing had occurred.

I should like now to say a little about the effect I think the Dean's letter as likely to have. The letter has been sent of course, to every member of the Faculty, and also to every undergraduate in Harvard College. In addition, the entire text has been published in the Harvard Gazette.

For one thing, the letter should be a consciousness raiser, if only by focusing attention on the issue and its complexities and also on the existence of disciplinary procedures. In its recognition of possible uncertainties in the course of professional and personal relationships, and in its emphasis on the professional responsibilities of instructors the letter will surely contribute to the quality of community discussion of the topic. Certainly the letter will not end the discussion. There are, after all, a number of other was to think about the phenomena to which we refer as "sexual harassment" Some believe that the University should not presume to meddle in the personal associations of Faculty members who after all might be supposed to be people of judgement. Besides such jurisdictional arguments there is also the view that romantic liaisons between teachers and their students are not necessarily a bad thing that it depends very much on the circumstances.

Even those who shere the Council's views about the inappropriateness of such relationships have some concerns. Chief among them is the worry that the community will pay a high price in a diminution of faculty student contract and that the chill climate that will result will affect women particularly.

The fast concern is one to which I am particularly sensitive One of the most common and I believe serious complaints made by graduate student women especially about their experience here is that they are less likely to be asked to socialize informally with the Faculty members in their departments. These women believe I think correctly that the associations one forms in graduate school with senior people in one's field are critical to one's development as a scholar. As in any other kind of endeavour--and perhaps more than in most--"mentors" are crucial to the growth of the sense of oneself as a scholar. Yet a number of male Faculty members have told me recently that they intend henceforth to be much more careful in showing personal interest in women students. Invitations to coffee may become much rarer for women students It what I hear bears any relation to reality.

'I believe it is realistic to predict that instructors and students will continue to find each other personally attractive ...My hope is that the current interest in the topic of sexual harassment...will make all of us more sensitive to the appropriateness of our actions...

However the undergraduates who helped the Faculty Council in its discussion of these issues confidently assured the Council that a clear understanding of what sort of behavior was acceptable would foster an atmosphere of trust more conducive to appropriate individual contact. In the long run they may be correct but I worry about the near future.

In short I believe we may reasonably expect some changes to occur in thinking about the board issue of sexual harassment. Insofar as naivete or thoughtlessness is to blame for the development of awkward situations we may look forward to some improvement. But there are certain things which my experience in my current role has persuaded me are likely to be pervasive features of the landscape. It will doubtless sound terribly corny and perhaps cynical to wager that human and perhaps cynical to wager that human nature will remain unchanged. But I believe it is realistic to predict that instructors and students will continue to find each other personally attractive and that on occasion some will act on their feelings even though they may be aware that to do so may lead to difficulties. Few of us would wish for an environment in which such feeling could not develop. My hope is that the current interest in the topic of sexual harassment--and our continuing efforts to articulate the complexities of that issue--might contribute to the kind of "sea change" in society generally that will make all of us more sensitive to the appropriateness of our actions in the various roles we play.