Sexual Harassment: One (Male)
This insider's view of sexual harassment in a college environment comes
from a full professor of astronomy at a prestigious U.S. university. The
author preferred to publish under his own name but agreed to conceal his
identity to protect the other participants, who were not consulted about
this article, and his university, which is likely no better and no worse than
any other high-profile institution.
Most scientists I know are attracted to
the profession by its endless opportunities
for figuring things out — teasing
simple relationships out of complex data,
exploring the wondrous connection between
human mathematics and the natural world, contributing
to a rational model of the Universe.
Most scientists I know also happen to be better
at these pursuits than they are at interpersonal
relationships. We call this a selection effect.
As with selection effects in any observational
sample, problems can ensue. We can derive simple
relationships that are false, construct models
that do not comport with the reality, and develop
artificially rational rules that have little relationship
to how the real Universe works.
Having spent much of my time as a faculty
member involved, both officially and unofficially,
with sexual harassment laws, procedures, and
situations, I am sobered by the stunning inapplicability
of my natural mode of thought in
addressing issues involving sex, power, and
people. Especially people.
Chapter 1: A professor exploits his position
Typical of the Ivy League. Hire some guy
(usually) who has never stood in front of a class
in his life and tell him to go and teach a “Physics
for Poets” course to 60 people, each of whom
will pay $2100 for the privilege of listening to
him for two hours a week. Provide no syllabus,
book suggestion, tips on teaching (let alone mentoring)
or, in the end, collegial feedback. Only
the advice that he shouldn't spend too much time
on it at the expense of his research.
Come mid-semester, the young turk needs to
give an exam. Again, no advice, except sarcastic
warnings about the lame excuses to expect from
students wanting to duck it. Indeed, he gets a
call from one student who claims his dentist
only has office hours on Monday evenings (the
exam date). Grandmothers drop like flies. Then
he gets a call from one of the more attractive
students in the class (yes, he has noticed): “My
husband has just been murdered in California
and I'll have to miss the exam.” Pause. Does he
adopt the (recommended) jaundiced view and
counter with a sarcastic quip, or hope that it is
true (hope that it is true?) and be the sympathetic
teacher. He opts for the latter — not battlehardened
It is true.
After a couple of weeks the student is back in
class and asks for help in catching up, but she
can't come to office hours because she works all
day. So he volunteers to meet her at her
job (near his apartment) to give her
extra help. Fade-out, fade-in. By
second semester, he's
sleeping with her,
and, yes, she is still in
Could there be a
clearer case for prosecution?
This incident occurred
more than twenty years ago
before sexual harassment statutes existed (and
when elite institutions had far less interest in
teaching undergraduates). Is it less common
today? Should there be absolute rules against student/
Chapter 2: A victim unwilling to seek redress
A Chairperson, several years into his term,
receives one of the graduate students in his
department who asks for a closed-door discussion.
In some of the office shuffling that occurs about
once per semester, she has just been assigned an
office mate with whom she has a problem.
“Oh, what's the difficulty?”
He, another graduate student, appears to
have an unwonted (and unwanted) level of
interest in socializing.
Well, constant phone calls at home and persistent
opportuning in the office.
“This is quite serious.”
With further probing, it turns out to be more
serious, indeed. He recently offered her a ride
home, locked the doors, drove to an undesirable
neighborhood and verbally threatened her unless
she succumbed to his advances. She escaped
unharmed, but just doesn't want to share the
office with him.
This behavior cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
It is not technically what the law describes
as sexual harassment, but it is both a federal and a
state crime. It is clear that such a person cannot be
allowed to remain in the program.
“Oh, no, I just want to change offices.”
Two hours of pleading, lectures on social
responsibility and consideration of the common
good, discussion of possible extralegal approaches
to the matter — none of it has any effect. A
change of office must be the end of it.
Of course this request is granted. But what is
next? The discussion is cloaked in a blanket of
confidentiality. Approaching the attacker, his
advisor, or anyone else would breach that confidentiality
and, quite likely, further involve the
student in an issue she wishes to put behind her.
Failure to act could lead to much more serious
consequences, although the complainant is confident
it will not.
What is the responsible course of action for
Chapter 3: It's not only men
A faculty member receives a phone call from
a woman student in a different division of the
university who has been referred to him by a
friend. She wishes to have a meeting to discuss a
pattern of verbal harassment in her program,
orchestrated by a woman professor, but involving
others as well.
The meeting is arranged. It consists of a
detailed recital of the alleged harassment including,
after class and in front of other students,
discussion of pubic hair and coke cans. Yes, this
was at the time of the Clarence Thomas Senate
hearings. Copycat crime or serious self-delusion?
The student is clearly distraught and something
must be done. The faculty member meets
with the school's Associate Dean, then with the
Dean, and goes over their (thorough and repeated)
investigations of the complaints. He meets
again with the student, meets the University
EEO Officer (a lawyer who also runs the Sexual
Harassment Panel), meets with the student again… and again, and again. New incidents are related.
The complaints multiply, the meetings multiply,
the flat denials by the female faculty member
multiply. Months, then years, go by.
The mediating faculty member becomes
largely convinced the charges are false, but fails
in all attempts to ameliorate the student's suffering.
Suggestions for counseling go unheeded.
Her demands escalate. She begins attempts to
sue the university. More meetings, this time with
university Legal Counsel. The (female) lawyer
basically isn't interested — the university will
win and has a lot more money than she does.
But they don't want false accusations in the
papers, so yes, keep mediating.
Where are the good guys and the bad guys in
Chapter 4: The professor as victim
A student shows up at a young professor's
“This just has to stop.”
“What has to stop?”
Delivered flatly: “Everyone in the class
knows we are having an affair.”
“Everyone except me.” A poorly timed
attempt at humor.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“What would you like me to do?”
There follows a painful half-hour in which
the student details the particulars of the alleged
affair's advertisement. The faculty member
patiently attempts to understand what he can do
to alleviate the student's discomfort over what,
as far as he is concerned, is a figment of the student's
imagination. He had never seen the student
outside of class, and this is her first visit to
his office hours. Not one of his better days.
But it's not the only bad day, because three
days later she is back with more complaints. And
later with more … and more. Then, sometime
later: “I saw you on the street downtown at 7
p.m. on Friday.” Ah, this is what stalking is about.
And this is harassment. The professor does
not lodge a complaint, concerned with the possible
consequences for the student.
Or is he concerned that the sexual harassment
hierarchy will not believe his denials? He
has recently seen “Oleana,” and regards the
charges in that play as ambiguous. Is he actually
Policies and laws
All true stories, and but a small fraction of
the true stories in the life of any university. The
stories are not, of course, a statistically representative
sample; a large majority of such cases
involve a senior male and a lower-ranking
female. Some of this majority, although by no
means all, are easier to resolve, in the sense that
the formal definitions of the law are straightforward
to apply, and sanctions follow as warranted.
But whether the cases are classic or confused, the behavior they represent creates threats to physical,
psychological, and collegial well-being that
are wholly inimical to a productive working
environment. How do we create perfectly safe
and civil workplaces for all employees?
We don't. So, then, how do we ameliorate
the lack of safety and arrest the incivility?
Memos from the Provost, convocation speeches
by the chaplain, sensitivity training sessions for
Department Chairs, and mentoring for graduate
student TAs all have their place and may help.
To date, however, we have not created successful
utopias using edicts or religion or psychology
or education. The best attempts at social
harmonization we have created are based
on a society of laws.
The brief vignettes above were each rich in
complexities space does not allow me to
describe (e.g., one of the accusations in Chapter
4 concerned the fact that the professor, having
finished writing a line at the top of the blackboard,
would tuck in his shirt — an act interpreted
by the student as a overtly suggestive
thrust for his genitals). The law is a relatively
blunt instrument with which to untangle these
complexities and, indeed, in each of these cases,
its full force in court was never brought to bear.
But the acknowledgement by our society that
sexual harassment exists by enshrining the concept
in civil law represents enormous progress.
For example, most universities used to have
specific anti-fraternization policies, and many
still do. Some prohibit sexual relations between
any faculty member and any student, some just
between a faculty member and his or her own
students. In my view, such rules are naive and
unenforceable, although I recognize they may
provide useful guidance for unsophisticated
(and/or unthoughtful) new faculty and students.
For students under the age of consent, anti-fraternization
rules are merely redundant with state
laws, which would take precedence in the case of
a complaint. In the absence of sexual harassment
law, they would, perhaps, offer some needed
protection to students. They would not, however,
eliminate such relationships, and they would
not offer true, state-sanctioned legal protection.
Current statutes make things much clearer.
First, sexual harassment protection is
enshrined in civil law, outside of the university's
control. Second, it makes clear where the onus
lies: with the person in authority (in this case,
the faculty member or TA), if he or she engages
in either quid pro quo harassment (“sex for
grades”) or creates by his or her actions a “hostile
environment” (which is by now rather carefully
defined in case law). The student has automatic
standing to bring a charge if he or she
feels harmed. The university's complaints
process must acknowledge this law, and the
institution is liable for state and federal sanction
if they ignore it (as with other equal opportunity
law). Thus, the legal situation for a faculty member
who initiates (or simply participates) in a
sexual relationship with a student is transparent.
If the student is aggrieved, either during or after
the relationship, the faculty member is presumed
What of the situation when a student is justly
aggrieved but chooses not to take action? I
have encountered this many times, and early in
my involvement with these issues, I was passionate
in my attempts to push for a complaint. I
still believe it usually is the socially responsible
thing to do. But I have come to understand that
each individual has his or her own balance
between social responsibility and self-preservation,
and that this balance must be respected in
all but the most extreme circumstances.
And what of the other two incidents, in
which the charges might well have been fabricated?
In each case, the student is genuinely distraught
and therefore, by definition, needs help.
It might well be, however, that a faculty member,
or even a trained sexual harassment counselor,
are ill equipped to ameliorate the student's
difficulties. The acknowledgement of a real phenomenon
we label sexual harassment does not
mean that this label is appropriate for all interpersonal
disputes or internal discomfiture.
Gray areas and remedies
My defense of the current legal reality may
well have lost a portion of the readership. After
all, as I have admitted, universities do generally
have large and well-paid legal staffs, which can
be used to further institutional interests rather
than to support the victims of sexual harassment;
doesn't this eviscerate the protection the
law provides? At one time, perhaps, but not, in
my experience, today.
In the past decade, I have seen no case in
which the law was clearly violated and the perpetrator
escaped sanction. The key adverb in the
preceding sentence, however, is “clearly.” The
cases are often, very often, not clear. I have
encountered instances in which charges were
completely fabricated, although these are rare. I
have also encountered cases in which guilt was
clear, and swift and appropriate action was
taken. However, the majority of the cases I have
seen and heard of are messy. While it should
not, I suppose, be surprising that scientific standards
of proof don't work very well in human relations, it can be frustrating, depressing, even
The best defense against messes, in my view,
includes the following:
All involved should have a clear understanding
of the relevant law and institutional policies
(something I frequently find woefully lacking
amongst all parties). Formal orientation sessions
for new students and for new faculty exist at my
university and can be helpful.
The institution should have an effective,
legally well informed, and strictly confidential
set of procedures to handle complaints.
Complainants should recognize the implications
for the common good of their decisions to
act (or, more often, not to act).
Those seeking a painful, frustrating, but
occasionally rewarding avocation should become
involved in the process of building healthy, civil
work environments through involvement as sexual
harassment advisors. I began my tenure on
my university's Sexual Harassment Panel with a
missionary zeal. I had seen sexual harassment in
action, I knew what it did to people, and I
would help root it out. Ten years later, while
equally committed to this ideal, I have a much
greater recognition of the complexity of the
individual situations and the difficulty of achieving
I will never forget an apparently classic case
in another department of “grades for sex”
involving a prominent professor and an undergraduate
student. I took time to listen to both
sides, although the legal process was already in
full swing. I was summoned to the University
President's office. The President was a lawyer,
and the facts were clear to him: academic dishonesty
on the part of the student and gross ethical
lapses on the part of the faculty member.
Both must be immediately dismissed, privately if
possible, but publicly if necessary — that would
show the University's resolve in dealing with
It was a defining moment for me. I had
talked to both parties. I could see the ambiguities,
ambiguities amplified by guilt, lust, concern
for the other, defense of the self — humanity.
In the end, I “won” the day (although I realize
not all my readers will agree with this assessment).
No one was dismissed. The final result
was a student who graduated and a faculty member
who was severely punished, but not academically
destroyed. I have, of necessity, left out many
details which unfairly deprives the reader of the
full set of information I had in reaching a decision
on how to argue this case. But I am reasonably
confident that justice was served. It was
messy. My initial instinct was, like the President's,
to act — but to what end? Untempered justice
and a rigorous application of the University's
honor code would have left two lives in ruins.
The law is a critical tool in ending harassment,
but wisdom is essential in its application.
One might well argue that this (male) call for“wisdom” is code for diffusing responsibility for
illegal and unethical actions, a way to shift
blame, redefine the problem, preserve the current
power relationships between men and
women. I might even have argued this twenty
years ago. But now, as a consequence of my
direct, long-standing involvement with this issue,
I am a far sadder and, just possibly, a slightly
wiser participant. Sadder, because, despite clear
progress in re-making laws and institutions so
that they treat women more equitably, inequities
persist and many resist real change. Slightly
wiser? Well, sobered by experience, at least.
It is perhaps appropriate that I end by revealing
the outcomes of the opening vignettes:
Chapter 1. The woman student was eight
years older than the faculty member. She
received a lower grade in the second semester of
the course than in the first (owing mostly to a
heavier daytime workload), and ultimately
received her bachelor's degree.
Chapter 2. Both students, much later, left the
field in which they were pursuing advanced
degrees, for reasons unrelated to the incident
Chapter 3. It is probable, though not established,
that the charges were fabricated. The student
involved ultimately got the advanced
degree for which she was registered; the professor
remains on the faculty.
Chapter 4. The professor was the victim, the
notion of an affair wholly fabricated. Stalking incidents
continued for over a year, and then faded
away. The student graduated some time later.
In the interest of full disclosure, the male
protagonist in each chapter (the young turk, the
Chairperson, the consulting faculty member, and
the harassed) is the author, who served on his
university's Sexual Harassment Panel for ten
years and who has just celebrated his twentieth
anniversary with the woman in Chapter 1.
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