UPDATED: March 29, 2018 at 5:08 p.m.
When allegations of sexual harassment against a prominent Government professor roiled campus last month, Harvard joined a growing list of universities across America embroiled in similar scandals—and saw direct effects of the #MeToo movement for the first time.
The #MeToo campaign launched in Oct. 2017 when the New York Times reported allegations that film executive Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed or abused dozens of women—ranging from actresses to staffers—across decades. The backlash against Weinstein precipitated a social media campaign centered around the catchphrase #MeToo, urging those who have experienced sexual misconduct to speak out.
In the following months, an avalanche of similar allegations surfaced in industries ranging from Hollywood to the restaurant business to higher education.
In Nov. 2017, the Huffington Post reported allegations of harassment against a Princeton engineering professor. In January, the New York Times reported five accounts of alleged sexually inappropriate behavior perpetrated by a Columbia photography professor. The Chronicle first reported allegations against Dominguez at the end of February.
Some higher education experts say it has taken comparatively longer for the #MeToo movement to reach academia broadly—and Harvard specifically.
“I don’t really know why it’s taken so long,” said Paula Fazli ’85, a search expert at Sage Search Partners. Fazli said she thinks one reason could be Harvard prioritizes protecting faculty members whenever possible.
“They spend a lot of time recruiting these amazing, top-of-their-field faculty [and] the whole institution’s reputation rests on having the best-of-the-best faculty and research in the world,” she said. “And their reputation, especially these days, there’s a huge risk in going public with a scandal.”
But former University provost Steven E. Hyman said he thinks it is an “error” to tie the problem of power relations or the problem of protecting tenured faculty exclusively to Harvard.
“I think academia is all hierarchical, and I think tenured faculty are protected, and I think it’s not unique to academia by any way, certainly,” he said. “I think the pattern is that people do protect each other and protect their powerful leaders both for bonds of affinity and also in these hierarchies because of fear or danger of rocking the boat.”
Fazli adds she thinks the changing cultural climate towards sexual harassment—typified by the #MeToo movement—has now made it impossible for institutions of higher learning to “push it under the rug.”
Narcisa Polonio, a former executive vice president at the Association of Community College Trustees, posited another reason the #MeToo movement may have taken longer to reach the University. Polonio said she thinks Harvard’s high profile might mean victims of sexual harassment feel reluctant to speak up.
“I think the issue here is because of the space that Harvard occupies,” she said. “Anything that’s going to happen there is going to get a lot more attention.”
University Title IX Officer Nicole M. Merhill said Harvard administrators have worked for years to address issues of sexual misconduct, with efforts dating back to well before the #MeToo movement began.
“We are creating an environment that is inclusive, that ensures that our graduate professional students and our undergraduate students feel that they can come forward to share concerns without the risks... of retaliation, risks of reputational harm,” she said.
Merhill also said she thinks Harvard is “ahead of the curve” on issues of sexual harassment policy. She pointed to recent Title IX office initiatives including a new online training module debuted at the College two years ago, regular analysis of “patterns of concerns” across the University, and the addition—and extensive training—of over 50 Title IX Coordinators across the University in recent years.
“Harvard didn't wait and doesn’t wait to respond to issues that come about through the media,” Merhill said.
Since the establishment of the central Title IX office in 2014, the University has seen an increase every year in the number of reports of sexual misconduct across Harvard. As of Dec. 2017, complaints had spiked by 20 percent in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.
Now that allegations of sexual harassment have specifically reached a Harvard professor, Polonio thinks the landscape of sexual misconduct in academia could shift. Polonio said the University’s high profile means how it handles the Dominguez allegations could set a precedent for how higher education institutions around the country handle sexual harassment incidents.
“What Harvard does next to resolve this will serve as a template for colleges and universities all over the country,” she said. “That’s what I would hope, that Harvard rises to the occasion and really explores the very best way to set the checks and balances and mechanism to protect those women and men.”
In the wake of the allegations brought against Dominguez, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences placed the professor on “administrative leave.” Harvard is currently conducting a review of the charges against Dominguez, according to FAS Dean Michael D. Smith. Dominguez also announced he would retire from teaching at the end of the semester, and from administrative positions immediately.
Hyman and Merhill said they hope those who have experienced sexual harassment continue to come forward.
Merhill said the Title IX Office’s goal is to create an environment where students “feel comfortable coming forward to any of their coordinators or to my office to share the concern they have so we can connect them with resources.”
“What I hope is that this is not a flash in the pan, a brief moment of people telling their stories,” Hyman said. “But rather that places like Harvard and all institutions, companies, will ensure that people who have been harassed, assaulted and so forth will continue to feel safe coming forward.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: March 29, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Narcisa Polonio is currently an executive vice president at the Association of Community College Trustee. In fact, she no longer serves in that role.
—Staff writer Luke W. Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duke_of_luke_.
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