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University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a Wednesday interview that Harvard is taking steps to create a “centralized process” to access personnel records following an external review that in part blamed Harvard’s decentralized structure for failures to respond to sexual harassment complaints.
Bacow’s remarks come one week after the external review — commissioned following the 2018 revelation of decades of sexual harassment by former Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez — detailed Harvard’s failures to respond to reports of misconduct over a span of nearly 40 years.
Bacow said in the interview that the University accepts the report’s recommendations, but some policy changes “are going to take a little bit of time” to develop.
The external report urged the University to create a central database for personnel files after notes of sexual harassment disclosures against Domínguez were spread across multiple offices and files. According to the report, this decentralization “could have impeded” the efforts of University leaders to adequately vet Domínguez for positions of higher authority.
Bacow said the University’s human resources department is working with the Title IX office, the Office for Dispute Resolution, and the Office of General Counsel to create a more streamlined system to access personnel files.
“We are working with the schools right now to create a centralized process so that it’s easy to access information about any one individual, given our decentralized nature,” Bacow said.
Bacow said the University has yet to determine whether the reforms will involve a central database of files or will enact procedural changes to the same effect.
“We have a group that’s working together now to figure out a process which will expeditiously allow a search of any one individual’s personnel records across the University, regardless of where they’ve been employed,” he said.
“It could take the form of a function which allows for a simultaneous search of multiple databases,” Bacow added.
The report also said that Harvard “has put in place a sophisticated and orderly process” for sexual harassment reporting in the years since Domínguez was fired — a point Bacow reiterated Wednesday.
Four women who were harassed by Domínguez — former Government assistant professor Terry L. Karl, Government Ph.D. graduate Suzanna E. Challen, and Government concentrators Charna E. Sherman ’80, and Nienke C. Grossman ’99 — took issue with that section of the review’s findings in a letter to Bacow last Friday.
In the letter, the women said they could not advise other women to use Harvard’s current procedures to report sexual misconduct by tenured faculty members and urged Bacow to include harassment victims in efforts to reform University policies.
“I understand Professor Karl’s frustration,” Bacow said Wednesday. “As I said in my message to the community, we failed her, and nobody should have to go through what she went through.”
Bacow said all Harvard affiliates bear responsibility for shifting the University toward a culture intolerant of harassment, which is necessary for individuals to feel comfortable reporting misconduct.
“It’s one thing to have policies and procedures, but they really are not of much value if they’re not widely understood and adopted,” he said. “It needs to be a larger effort on behalf of the entire community.”
Bacow pointed to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay’s decision to publicize the 2018 sanctions against Domínguez as a positive step, and pledged to continue increasing the University’s oversight and improving its response procedures.
“Are they perfect? No,” Bacow said. “Can we do better? Yes. Will we do better? Yes.”
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