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Harvard’s Hypocrisy on Protecting Workers from Sexual Harassment

By Geoff Carens, Bailey Plaman, and Eugene van Buren, Contributing Opinion Writers
Geoff Carens, Bailey Plaman, and Eugene van Buren are Harvard University employees and members of HUCTW-AFSCME Local 3650, HGSU-UAW Local 5118, and UNITE HERE Local 26, respectively.

Sexual harassment is pervasive on Harvard’s campus. Members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents faculty assistants, program coordinators, laboratory technicians, and other essential staff, recently had one of their few protections from harassment torn away.

Harvard administrators are refusing to participate in HUCTW’s grievance process for sexual harassment. By walking back its agreement to honor this process, which has been in place since 1989, Harvard is denying its workers the right to seek real recourse on campus.

Harvard and HUCTW agreed that if a union member “experiences a problem in the workplace,” union representatives and the University — workers and their bosses — are supposed to cooperate to resolve the problem. If they cannot resolve the issue, it can be brought to an external mediator, a third-party expert independent of both Harvard and HUCTW, who can provide another perspective on the situation. The mediator’s job is to find a compromise that is acceptable to both sides. Following a lack of compromise, the mediator has the power to make a final decision.

In March, a University spokesperson stated that Harvard must abide by federal Title IX regulations. It is true that federal regulations require Harvard to provide a system for reporting sexual harassment under Title IX. In addition, however, Harvard and HUCTW signed a binding agreement to resolve cases of harassment and discrimination through a separate grievance process.

The administration must consider its legal obligations not only under Title IX, but also under its contract with HUCTW members. By ignoring the union's grievance procedure, Harvard is breaking a promise — and could be in violation of the law.

The procedure in HUCTW’s contract isn’t perfect. Its main shortcoming is that it can be time-consuming and protracted. The process can take years. But it can provide meaningful recourse to victims because it provides access to an independent procedure that the University does not control. The details of past cases are confidential, but contractual mediation can lead to mutually acceptable resolutions — when Harvard respects its legal commitment to the process.

Addressing these complaints can be inconvenient for University administrators, who often have an interest in protecting powerful bosses, managers, and faculty despite patterns of abuse. Perhaps that’s why Harvard is trying to get out of its responsibilities under the contract.

But there are many good reasons why HUCTW staff would not want to report an incident to Harvard’s Title IX Office — now housed under the new Office of Gender Equity. All of Harvard’s Title IX Coordinators are University employees. In addition to their Title IX duties, they have other responsibilities within University administration, which can create a conflict of interest. Harvard workers who report to Title IX have legitimate concerns that they might be outed to their bosses, whatever Harvard’s policies about the confidentiality of Title IX might say in principle. What’s critical is that members of the community have their cases heard by an impartial, knowledgeable third-party expert independent of the University.

Further, the many shortcomings of Title IX were multiplied by new rules enacted by the Trump administration in 2020. The Biden administration is acting to reverse and improve these rules, but the exact approach the new Department of Education will take is not yet clear, and it could be years before any changes go into effect.

Harvard’s choice to abandon its contractual responsibilities is a concern not only for members of HUCTW but for all workers and students at the University. All people have a right — a legal right — to go to work or school without the worry of harassment or discrimination. HUCTW’s contract provides limited protections not only against sexual harassment but also against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and other identities. By disrespecting the procedure for sexual harassment, Harvard is putting all of these protections in question.

Unfortunately, the University’s position on the sexual harassment grievance process for HUCTW workers is already consistent with a general lack of commitment to protecting the community’s fundamental rights. At Harvard, diversity, inclusion, and equity are just buzzwords that appear to “meet the moment” in University-wide emails. However, recent experience shows that if workers and students want their rights to be respected, they have to come together to demand those rights.

HUCTW and several other major campus unions representing graduate students, dining service workers, and other university employees are negotiating new contracts with Harvard. The current contracts expire this summer and fall. When the contracts are up, we’re committed — as rank-and-file members of two of these unions — to organizing for our rights.

We hope you’ll join us.

Geoff Carens, Bailey Plaman, and Eugene van Buren are Harvard University employees and members of HUCTW-AFSCME Local 3650, HGSU-UAW Local 5118, and UNITE HERE Local 26, respectively.

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