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Sexual Harassment Is A Culture Problem, Not A Policy One

By Awnit Singh Marta
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

When a report nearly two years in the making recently revealed that “a permissive culture regarding sexual harassment” allowed former Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez to continue harassing female students and colleagues for nearly 40 years, the University’s immediate response to this externally diagnosed fundamental problem of culture was not to stop these problems at their source, but rather to create a centralized system to report them.

Though itself not unhelpful, positioning this centralized reporting system as a solution to a campus culture that is permissive of sexual assault is misguided and misleading.

Surely, the 26-page report notes that the decentralized structure of Harvard allowed Domínguez to sexually harass at least 18 women over the course of several decades as he continued to rise through University ranks despite allegations against him. But it also notes several other factors that compromised these women’s safety: University officials failed to record harassment complaints; power dynamics and “cavernous faculty gender imbalances” silenced victims; and the Government Department members who knew of Domínguez’s actions made no effort to stop the misconduct. To us, the lack of a centralized reporting system is merely a scapegoat compared to these other, more deeply-rooted issues.

That being said, we do not think that working to create a centralized process to access personnel records and keep track of misconduct is in vain. This is a step in the right direction to holding powerful men at our institution accountable for their behavior. Yet this is reactive, not proactive. A centralized reporting system on its own does not stop harassment, nor does it guarantee that victims who come forward will be taken seriously.

The centralized reporting system is but a fail-safe to make it harder for those in power to turn a blind eye to repeated claims — but why do Harvard officials seem to be so prone to turning a blind eye in the first place?

The fact that numerous members of the Harvard community — including those in leadership positions — knew about Domínguez’s sexual misconduct long before the University officially took action speaks to a larger issue; the professor had been found guilty of harassment in 1983 after a junior faculty member accused him of misconduct, and nothing happened. Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that centralization could have prevented Domínguez’s rise — certainly not if that centralization awarded oversight power to the very same individuals who felt comfortable looking the other way.

In sum, the Harvard community appears to be plagued by a culture of apathy towards sexual assault that is only worsened when professors in high positions are able to leverage their accolades over their offenses. The administration tends to turn a blind eye to professors’ sexual misconduct until it becomes too big of a problem to ignore. How can we actively fight those trends, beyond simply bureaucratic reorganization?

If the University hopes to deal with our assault culture, it should start by believing its students, and advocating for them as soon as possible and not only when a scandal blows up — just like we should have done back in 1983, when several students penned a piece in The Crimson demanding a more thorough institutional response to Domínguez, to no avail.

The University could also work to gain our trust by sticking to its promise of accountability: Give us an update on Mathematics and Biology professor Martin A. Nowak, who has been on paid leave for almost a year after it was revealed he had extensive contact with Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender. No centralized reporting system can counteract a systemic culture in which these allegations are not seen as wholly disqualifying.

Structure is much easier to fix than culture, so naturally, it’s where the University starts. And, though a good, long-overdue start, it can’t be seen as the end. Structural change is only helpful insofar as it makes cultural change easier.

So yes, let’s create a centralized reporting system for instances of sexual harassment. But let that be the beginning of a broader conversation about how Harvard protects powerful men from facing consequences for their actions.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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