In December 1979, for the first time in Harvard history, the University officially reprimanded a faculty member for sexual harassment, sparking an increase in the number of complaints about inappropriate relations pursued towards female undergraduates by the faculty.
Helene S. York ’83 filed a sexual harassment complaint against Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson on Nov. 15, 1979 for trying to kiss her while she attended his office hours, where, according to York, she was seeking advice on a paper topic.
More students spoke up and sought advice about dealing with sexual harassment following York’s case. However, no more formal complaints had been filed by the end of the school year, causing some to question Harvard’s commitment to dealing with sexual harrassment.
Then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky censured Kilson after the sexual harassment complaint came to light, asking him to write an apology letter to York. Kilson took a sick leave from the College during the spring term of 1980.
Furthermore, Rosovsky warned Kilson that if he repeated the offense, his tenure could be revoked by the Harvard Corporation.
“I did commit an act of impropriety, as I was fully aware,” Kilson told The Crimson in December 1979.
But he added that he did not intend to offend York. He said that it was “a valid perception” that his acts be seen as sexual harassment, but said he believed she misinterpreted his purpose. As he added, “my general affectionate air could be misinterpreted.”
During a Kennedy School of Government forum in May 1980, many women asked Judith B. Walzer—who served as assistant dean of the College for coeducation and the administrator who handles sexual harassment complaints—to explain the obscure policies over reporting sexual harassment.
In response, Walzer said she would ensure the University publicizes the procedures more carefully. Subsequently, Walzer recommended to Dean of Harvard College John B. Fox that the University clarify its definition of “sexual harassment” and publicize it in the student handbook.
Jennifer L. Pensler ’80, who served as president of the Radcliffe Union of Students during her college years, recalls that sexual harassment was an important issue during her time on campus.
“I met with Judith Walzer and there wasn’t a place to go to make a complaint, no clear guidelines,” she said.
Problems with dealing with sexual harassment and women’s issues remained.
Dean Fox admitted in a June 5, 1980 article in The Crimson that for the 1979-1980 school year, he “forgot to remind all of the [house] masters to hire a women’s adviser.”
Furthermore, Fox’s decision not to label women’s advisers as such made them much more difficult to seek out, possibly causing many students not to report cases of sexual harassment.
—Staff writer Bari M. Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com