News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Me, too. Caught between a rock and a hard on

Sexual matters are a fact of academic life.  They include sexual discrimination, sexual harassment,  and sexual assault.  And some more positive aspects.  Harassment and assault often happen in conjunction.  But there are other matters of consensual sexual misconduct that break societal rules,  and there are marriages that fail for reasons having little to do with sex.  I have witnessed affairs that ended marriages and careers.  On the campuses where I have worked,  sexual misbehavior has happened, frequently, but it has not disrupted the ability of the colleges to carry on with their primary work. Most faculty and students tend to the business of higher learning and do not get distracted or diverted by other people's libidinous peccadilloes.

I was aware of incidents, but carefully avoided circumstances where they might occur.   I knew about the dean who was fired because he could not leave a young oriental professor alone.  I heard the narrative of another dean and advisor to student government, the father of seven, who was shacking up with the president of the student association, also married.  I worked with a number of drama coaches who were suddenly let go because they couldn't resist the attractions of student actors, male and female.  At the institutions where I have worked, I was ignorant of lesser transgressions which did not make such good tales. But my aloofness ended late one Friday afternoon when a faculty member, his wife, and a lawyer from the Twin Cities came to my office.

As an officer of the faculty collective bargaining organization,  I became sort of the go-to person in matters of due process.  I was a negotiator for the contract with the Board of Regents and was proud of the provisions for due process that we had hammered out.  I often served as the grievance officer for people who were responding to or using due process to settle some matter.

For those who are not familiar with due process,  it is a set of procedures to be followed anytime a faculty member is involved in some kind of disciplinary action.  The procedures insure that any such actions adhere to the standards established in the Fifth Amendment.  

The contract requires that any person to be charged with a transgression be provided with notice of both the names of those who have made allegations against the faculty unit member and the specific nature and factual basis for the charges; a reasonable time and opportunity to present testimony on any disputed issue of material fact; and a hearing before an impartial decision-maker.   In addition, the contract provides a grievance procedure for anyone who thinks a disciplinary measure was wrongly or incompetently imposed.


The three persons who came to my office were irate because the professor had been called in and served with a notice that a sexual harassment complaint had been made against him, and he was informed that the matter was being investigated and he would be advised of the outcome.  The notice did not name the accuser, the specifics of the complaint, or provide  any opportunity for him to obtain the information or any opportunity to respond.  He was told that the procedure was in wide use on campuses so that women would not feel humiliated or intimated for fear of retaliation if they reported incidents of harassment and abuse.  


The professor, his spouse, and the lawyer came to see me as the union president and the person most familiar with due process matters.  Their first question waswhy did the union allow such a violation of what was stipulated in the contract?  My answer was that the notice they were given was the first that I, or any other union officer, was aware that a special procedure was being applied to sexual harassment cases.  

It turned out that the university attorney had been instructed to formulate a procedure for handling sexual harassment cases.  He apparently devised one from procedures used on other campuses.  The attorney of the professor outlined actions he was prepared to take against both the university and the union if the case was pursued any further using the procedure with which it was served.  For reasons I have never understood, the administration decided to go ahead despite the fact that the collective bargaining contract required a careful observance of due process.

As the case continued,  there was some background information regarding the professor  I became aware of.  He had applied for a much better position at a more prestigious university and had been accepted.  Any accusation of misconduct could jeopardize his new job.  Furthermore,  his wife hated Aberdeen, and was clearly dedicated to seeing that nothing would interfere with the new opportunity at a place she much preferred.  Her parents told her to hire a lawyer, and they would pay all the legal fees involved in behalf of the professor.  When the professor, his wife, and their lawyer came to my office,  they were already building a case in the event that they had to take the matter to court.

The administration said it would follow the procedure it informed the professor about.  The professor's lawyer was not a member of the South Dakota Bar,  so he hired a lawyer who was to represent the professor before the state judicial system at his direction.  Very quickly the university administration learned that the lawyers appeared before a judge to obtain a writ of mandamus which would order the university to  follow the due process procedure required in the collective bargaining contract.  When the administration realized that the professor and his lawyers were playing hard ball, it began to make conciliatory gestures,  but the lawyers were adamant and demanded the name of the complainant, the specific complaint and the factual basis for it, and the schedule of hearings for processing it.  During the fury of actions generated by their demands, it became clear that the lawyers were gathering information for a civil suit in the professor's behalf, if it came to that.

By this time, my role was that of a bystander, a union representative who monitored the proceedings to insure that they met the due process terms of the contract.  When the full complaint against the professor was finally presented as required, it identified a non-traditional student in the professor's class who was irate at receiving a low grade on an examination.  The lawyers and their investigators immediately assembled a narrative of what happened.

When the student received her exam back, she went to the student union with other students from the class and launched into a tirade about what a terrible professor the man was.  Other students suggested that she make an appointment with the professor to talk over the grade.  She did so and the professor talked with her at a table in the outer office with the departmental secretary present.  (He later explained that he always had a witness present when meeting with an irate student.)  He went over the examination with her, which included both multiple choice and essay questions.  On the multiple choice part, there were four versions given out to discourage copying answers from a neighbor's paper.  On some of the questions the student had marked ridiculous answers, which would indicate that they were copied.   In his explanation of her errors on the exam, he pointed out that she had chosen the worst possible answers on some of the questions.  He told her that she could submit a set of reading notes for extra credit to raise her grade for the course.

The meeting set off another rage on the part of the student, and she told a group of students that the professor accused her of cheating and announced that he was going to be taught a big lesson.  As one of the students she complained to explained it,  "She had a real hard on for the professor."

Her initial complaint was that the professor discriminated against her because she was a woman.  Later she claimed that the professor made sexual advances on her.  However, as the professor never had a meeting with the woman without a witness present, her claims were refuted  by witnesses during the hearings on the matter.  And as an aggressive lawyer represented the professor, the administration followed the rules of due process and finally determined that the complaint had to be dismissed as having no factual merit.  At the end of the school year, the young professor and his spouse happily moved to his new job.

As the professors I worked with agreed, the episode proved two things:  due process depends a lot on having a determined lawyer and the money to pay for one.  A dean later told me the student had transferred, and he expressed relief that the episode was over.  We took up a case in behalf of a dishonest, vindictive person and could have been sued out of existence, he said.

While that incident was taken care of,  the matter of how to deal with sex issues become a topic of urgent and intense discussion throughout higher education.   i was asked to join among others who dealt with due process to analyze the matter and come up with recommendations that would encourage women to report instances of harassment and abuse and seek recourse without violating any rights of due process.  We weren't very successful.  The committee was largely composed of department heads, many of whom were women.  They agreed that flagrant instances of harassment and assault in which the evidence was clear and unmistakeable could be taken care of through due process,  but many cases involved clashes of personality which are all but impossible to solve to anyone's satisfaction.   Acts of harassment are often defined by how a complainant and an accused person choose to interpret them.  The case I cite above was driven to resolution by the fact that it would eventually be tried in court and the university had no case against the factual one the professor's lawyer had assembled. Cases where there are no witnesses or evidence, just one person's word against another's,  can be impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of anyone involved.  The people asked to offer ideas about resolving sexual harassment complaints generally agreed that they would prefer to avoid them because they would inevitably make some dedicated enemies, no matter how hard they tried to be impartial and fair, and would end up with a toxic work environment.  Many such complaints arise from animosities that have non-sexual histories.

The issue that embroiled higher education was one that has dogged sexual harassment situations since Anita Hill accused now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings.  Anita Hill and a number of women who were in Congress at the time still think that Joe Biden, who chaired the confirmation hearings, did not handle the proceedings well.  

Women want to be able to report instances of harassment and assault without fear of retaliation or the embarrassment of humiliating details.    They complained that their accusations were met with skepticism and disbelief.  In order to demonstrate that sexual harassment reports would be believed, many organizations treated allegations of harassment or assault as established fact, and fired or took other disciplinary actions against accused faculty members without  due process.  Faculty on campuses where such actions took place saw these actions encroaching into matters of promotion and tenure and academic freedom.  Calls to investigate the actions and place sanctions against the offending institutions became too numerous for professional faculty organizations to handle.  

A few institutions worked out procedures that protected women who reported instances of harassment while giving the accused full access to due process while the complaints were investigated.   Those institutions were often cited for their efforts.  But the procedures they followed did not stop the constant criticism and complaints.  The hostile attitudes between those who contended that allegations were sufficient proof of misconduct and those who thought all disciplinary actions should follow a meticulous due process created sense of despair about confronting sexual harassment.  People in leadership positions in some cases resigned their jobs rather than try to deal with it.

One organization obtained some foundation grants to do a study on how harassment cases were handled to see if it could identify the best methods of resolution.  It assembled panels of people who were knowledgeable and experienced in due process to review the records of cases to determine how carefully and effectively procedures were followed, the kinds of misconduct charged, and the appropriateness of the resolution of the cases.   I was asked to serve on a review panel.

For about half of the cases, there was no question that harassment or assault had occurred.  The resolutions ranged from corrective actions to dismissal.

The other half of the cases were an incredible mess to sort through.  Many involved things said to women that men said they did not say.  Or that women took as sexual when they were not, according to the men.  The complaints came at a time when academe was in retrenchment, promotion and tenure was scarce, and the competition for tenure and advancement was fierce.  Many complaints were made by women and other men against rivals for advancement.  An accusation of sexually aggressive behavior could take a person out of the competition, it was thought at some institutions.  

A significant number of the cases were not matters of sexual harasssment, but arose from personal animosities, much like the case  I cited above. They were treated as sexual harassment largely because both genders were involved and administrators used the sexual harassment designation to move the problems to someone else's responsibility. For the panels reviewing the cases, the files reflected a record of how vile and unscrupulous people can be and to what depths of behavior they can sink when in competition with others.  An example was a case of two professors, one male and one female, who had a history of detesting each other for years.  The case became a sexual harassment issue when the female professor complained about her department being dominated by old, white men.  The male professor said it was unfortunate that advancing age  and declining sexual interest limited the opportunity to screw your way into a job you weren't qualified to hold in the first place.   Reading those case files back then was like reading Donald Tump's tweets now.  They were illustrations of the petty treacheries that characterize the culture of some institutions. 

The panels concluded that the cases where sexual harassment was established as fact were undercut by the cases where was doubt or differences of opinion about what had actually occurred.  They also concluded that all parties, both the accused and accuser, deserved the full application of due process.

Of the current accusations,  the ones in Minnesota involving Garrison Keillor and Al Franken emphasize  the need for due process in which facts, evidence, and witnesses get thorough examination.  Minnesota Public Radio went excessively ballistic in its eradication of Keillor, to the point that indicates that some maliciously resentful souls were waiting for some pretext to vaporize him.  Keillor seems to know who his accuser is, at least.  Franken who has apologized for any potential offense he created is in a situation where he doesn't know his accusers, except the first one, and does not remember the occasions,  which involve him posing for photographs with the accusers.  The Senate Ethics Panel has convened its inquiry, as Franken has requested, and the accusers, Franken, and the public all deserve the full application of due process with the examination of evidence and witnesses.

A detailed explanation of the standards of due process can be reviewed by clicking this sentence.   It explains how universities are expected to handle sexual harassment complaints and which can be instituted in other settings.  It's a matter of justice for all.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Two big blows that have saddened me were happened to Garrison Keillor and especially with Senator Al Franken resigning today.

Ironically every election cycle at least from what I understood Garrison Keillor was a great supporter of women who ran for public office that were in the DFL and or Progressive. That includes a fundraiser at his house on Summit Ave in St. Paul. The DFL candidate for State Senate I door knocked was the first woman elected to the Meeker County Commission and served for 13 years. She was honored to attend and had a great experience.

With Al Franken's resignation I'm still in shock and have been skeptical as to the charges being political given he was emerging as a leader but even with what has been coming forth it could of been used if cleared by the ethics Com to move forward and be an advocate for change. We lost a powerful voice for us and at least one leader from the Minnesota Native community has said Sen Franken stood up for them and really tried to make an effort to learn about their challenges when not many in the Senate would. I caucused and voted for him in the general when he was running against Norm Coleman while living in Minneapolis.

Miranda Gohn

Anonymous said...

Very good. I now wonder when Roger Stone and the rest of the roypublican smear machine will start to go after Democratic congresswomen's past. They did that with Clinton and it worked well enough and she did not help herself much. For that matter, neither did the Democratic party as they could have stepped in to deflect much of the mud. Putin stands proud of what he has proven workable to eliminate your opponents.

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