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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Et tu, Mary Lou?

The original purpose of the task force was to review 172 cases dealing with sexual misconduct in the academic world to determine if due process had been followed for both the alleged victims and accusers.  I was newly retired and did not know how to say "no" to requests for volunteer work.  As a long time officer in faculty organizations and an advocate for due process, it seemed like something I should do.  So, I found myself on a panel reviewing transcripts and documents of 172 cases to see if due process had been carefully observed.

For 54 percent of the cases there was no question that overt acts of harassment or assault had taken place  and the perpetrators had admitted their acts and were disciplined.  The acts ranged from physical sexual assault to covertly abusive behavior.  A problem within that category was that some of the instances did not seem to have a sexual motive and the panel questioned whether the case should have been classified as sexual harassment.   

One example involved two senior professors who loathed each other and for years refused to speak to each other.  The female professor had disparaged the published work of the male, and he refused to have anything to do with her after that and the two generally avoided each other.  One morning she was standing in the office hallway talking to another colleague when the man was on his way to his office.  He waited a few moments while they talked and then said, "Would you mind moving your obnoxious ass so I can get to my office?"

In the case records, the colleague with whom the woman was talking said that she was obviously ignoring the man as he stood in the hallway waiting to get by.  However, she filed a sexual harassment and hostile work environment complaint.  The department chair noted that the department had worked around the hostility between the two for more than a decade by acknowledging the personality clash, but showed respect for the work they did and the contributions they made to the department.  The man's work had gained national recognition and the woman's belittlement of it seemed to stem from a sense of rivalry.  In her complaint, the woman suggested that man be dismissed for his behavior.

The department chair and the university president noted that the man's work and reputation were an important part of the university and that the woman's deprecations of the man and his work were a part of what had created the hostile environment.  The president noted that the fact that the man did not merely say "Excuse me," but made a rude reference to the woman's anatomy in asking to get by which was a hostile but not a sexual response.  The case was resolved with a written reprimand put in the man's personnel file and arranging to move the man's office to a different floor to reduce the occasions in which the two might encounter each other.  The chair agreed to consult with the man about departmental business on a personal basis and by memoranda so that he would not have to attend meetings at which the woman was present, and the man agreed that this arrangement would allow him to continue his work for the  few years until his retirement.   While the review panel questioned whether the incident should be treated as a sexual harassment matter,  it found that due process had been carefully applied and the resolution went to great lengths to protect the professors' jobs and enable them to continue their work..

The fact that the 172 cases occurred on college and university campuses puts them in a special context.  The quest for tenure and promotion is highly competitive, and some people will use accusations of character deficiency and misconduct against their rivals.  In reviewing the application of due process, the panel found many cases in which the competition for promotion or tenure was involved in the sexual misconduct or harassment  complaints.  In the case cited above, it appeared that the hostility between the man and woman had its origins in the competition for promotion.  

A factor in reviewing the cases was that many did not involve overt actions, but verbal exchanges which could be interpreted in different ways.  The approximate breakdown of the cases reviewed   (from memory; no records were permitted to be kept) is:

          54%  Cases of definite and proven sexual misconduct or harassment

          16%  Cases of overt verbal sexual reference, purpose not always clear

          14%  Cases in which a sexual reference was disputable

          16%  False or contorted or exaggerated claims

Adjuducating sexual harassment claims can be tough.  University officials for the most part would prefer not to have to do it.  Nearly all officials in their summaries commented that no matter how serious or trivial an incident may be or whether the charge was true or false, it would leave a hostile work environment.  In a few cases, department chairs resigned their administrative positions rather than try to mediate a sexual harassment charge.  They said the resulting hostility would interfere seriously with their work as scholars and teachers.  As a faculty union officer whose job was to try to insure that due process was followed,  I witnessed the bitterness left behind by a sexual harassment charge, no matter whether it was proven or dismissed.

In higher education, sexual harassment has been addressed with due process policies since the mid-1980s.  Among the concerns is the fact that women are are reluctant to make a formal complaint because of the negative effect it will have on their career and professional relationships.  The Me, Too movement has revived this concern and has advocated that all complaints be responded to with the assumption that they are true.  Some backlash has occurred over that assumption.  One I am aware of comes from some female staff members of former Senator Al Franken.  They have insisted that he did not intentionally touch any female constituents while campaigning or posing for pictures with them.  The staff members signed a letter attesting to that and thought that the matter could be resolved if the staff members who were present during the alleged incidents could testify in a due process hearing by the Senate Ethics Committee.  However, when Senate colleagues demanded Franken's resignation, he complied and his staff members lost their jobs.  They contend that the accusations against him were contrived.

That incident raises a matter that is not addressed in sexual harassment policies.  Malice, dishonesty, and defamation are not qualities possessed only by men seeking to satisfy their sexual impulses.  Women driven by ambition and ego and personality issues can share in those qualities.  That leads to an incident that was stunning to the review panel.

A charge was filed against a professor who established and developed a highly regarded program in Slavic studies.  The charge was from his assistant director.  She claimed that they had had an affair and when she tried to break it off, he persisted in harassing and confronting her.  She had compiled a record giving dates, times, and places where the incidents occurred,  and she had a young professor as a witness.

The complaint was filed and a university vice president immediately suspended the professor from the university.  However, due process proceedings were instituted and a hearing panel was presented with conflicts in the woman's testimony.  The man was a high-ranking officer in the military reserves.  He was often called upon for his expertise in Slavic languages, culture, and government policies. During the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing problems in the Balkans, he was called into service multiple times.  For one such call up,  he was assigned to NATO in the time frame that his program assistant claimed he was harassing her.

As a high-ranking military officer, the professor was in the habit of maintaining an extensive log of his activities.  He could specify where he was and what he was doing everyday of his life.  This included the calendar maintained by his secretary, and that led to a big mistake made by his program assistant.  She had been told that he would be intermittently absent from his office.  When he was called to duty, an agreement was made by the military and and the university president that the reasons for his absence would not be publicized or mentioned unless pressed.  It was not a military secret, but both the Department of Defense and the university preferred to avoid raising questions about NATO activities and negotiations that did involve confidential and sensitive matters that could risk lives.  The assistant program director looked at blank places on the director's calendar and assumed that he was engaged in other travel or discretionary activities.  As the department secretary was very loyal to the director, the assistant director did not ask if she knew where the director was. The director, also, had become aware that his assistant had been aggressive about taking over as director and had done and said things designed to undercut the director.  She used the open dates on the calendar under the assumption that the director could not explain his whereabouts.

 As the director was involved in some high level work during this time, an attorney was assigned to represent him during the hearings on the matter.  The attorney presented documents showing where the director was at the time incidents of harassment were claimed, letters from military commanders and other officials verified his presence elsewhere, and news videos showed him with military delegations in foreign lands at the time some incidents were claimed. In addition the young professor who claimed to have witnessed the incidents said that the assistant director had convinced her of the sexual harassment and promised her promotion and choice assignments if she would verify the assistant director's charges.  The attorney made a case with overwhelming evidence that the professor never had an inappropriate relationship with the assistant director.  The college officials and the hearing panel dismissed the complaint as false, but the mess created did not go away.  At the university president's insistence, the woman resigned her assistant directorship but university officials had not decided what to do regarding her job as a professor.  The young accomplice resigned her job, at the administrations request,  in the hopes that she could find a position at another institution.     The university president was irate with the vice president who had suspended the director because it cast the university in such a bad light.

The director's wife, who held a professorship at a neighboring university, was furious about the handling of the whole affair.  She and the couple's children had testified in the director's behalf, but she, who was a member of a faculty union, insisted that no professor who had committed such a dishonest act as the assistant director should hold a professor's job anywhere.  She made her case with professional organizations that such violations of academic honesty should be made a part of an employment record available to potential employers.  The difficulty with that noted by professional organizations was that the assistant director was found to suffer a personality disorder, and the fact that it might be subject to medical treatment is why the university was uncertain about disciplining her in her job.  Medical issues cannot be made part of an employment record.

The case reached a disruptive resolution.  A prestigious university in another part of the country made an offer to the director to move the program to its campus.  He and his wife determined that the program would be at risk if it was kept where it was at, so he accepted the offer.  The president at the original university also decided to move on and helped the program make the transition to the other university.

As the panel reviewed the due process matters, its members all remarked at what a destructive mess had been created,  Innocent people lost their jobs.  Special arrangements had to be made for students in the program to finish their work.  While the panel found the suspension of the director was a premature act,  due process did establish the truth of the matter and absolved the director of a false and defaming accusation.  But due process could not help a demoralized and shamed institution or restore its reputation.

That incident was only one of 172, but it was the one that lingered in the minds of the review panel.  While due process saved the professor, it was inadequate to save the university from chaos and demoralization.  If the administrators had checked out the accusation before beginning the actions against the director, they could have addressed the dishonesty issue in a quiet and orderly manner.  The vice president who suspended the director said he took quick action so that no one on campus would think he did not take the complaint seriously.  But in doing so, he demonstrated that he did not take the possible innocence of the accused seriously. 

For 54 percent of the cases the panel reviewed, there was no doubt that the complaints were justified.  For 14 percent of the cases, there was doubt about whether a deliberate act of harassment had taken place.  And for 16 percent the accusations were  shown to be false or contrived.  

The main point that the cases demonstrate is that sexual harassment has no place in the work environment so that people have to try to determine whether it occurred or not.  The lives of the majority of women who make legitimate complaints are clearly affected in deleterious ways.  Even a flippant remark that is not intended to be disturbing can create distrust and a feeling of disrespect.  But that knife is double-edged.  An offhand, ambiguous remark that is taken as overtly harassing creates distrust and resentment in the one accused of making it.  Criticism of work or behavior can often be interpreted as misogyny or misandry.  People are often looking for reasons to take offense.

In one of the cases the panel reviewed, a long-time and respected academic dean expressed his frustration at dealing with personnel complaints.  He said  facetiously that many of the problems could have been prevented through a segregation of the sexes.  If men and women didn't talk to each other, he mused, he could get back to the business of scholarship and teaching rather than trying to repair damaged relationships and feelings.  While his comments were sardonic, they emphasized what a disruptive effect sexual harassment has on many lives.

The 172 cases did not provide a definitive profile of matters of sexual assault and harrassment.  The review was made to provide specific information on the application of due process, examine how successful it was in dealing with sexual misconduct, and to define ways that due process could be improved.  The cases examined came from institutions that were conscientiously concerned about providing workplaces free from sexual harassment and insuring that both accusers and the accused received fair and just hearings.  Nevertheless, the review did provide an indicator of why due process is a necessary method for addressing misconduct issues.

The advocation of due process produced a peculiar argument in the media.  The argument is that due process is given Constitutional authority only in criminal cases.  Sexual harassment complaints are not tried in criminal court, so the niceties of due process are not required.  The arguers often add that harassment is tried in the court of public opinion.  The argument reflects a devastating ignorance.  Lynch mobs are courts of public opinion.  And the Preamble of the Constitution states that its purpose is to establish justice, for all, not just for those charged with crimes.  Due process is the means to liberty and equality both for women who are harassed and those accused of doing the harassing.  

Ultimately, the dealing with sexual assault, harassment,  and discrimination is a matter of justice.  Women should not be made to feel apprehensive about filing complaints.  And the accused should not feel that an accusation justifies taking away their human rights.  Complaints prosecuted without  due process is a denlal of justice.  Without justice, there can be no liberty and equality.


1 comment:

Porter Lansing said...

Compelling piece. Thank you.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States