As if on cue from my post yesterday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent an open letter on sexual harassment to Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the US Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. OCR is charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws as they apply to colleges and universities receiving federal funds, and that includes just about all of them. We’re happy to be one of FIRE’s cosigners.
The letter requests that Ali resolve the bewildering confusion with respect to what constitutes “sexual harassment” among students (not between students and teachers or professors) at educational institutions. That’s been a problem for quite some time, as our 1993 statement on the subject confirms. As we saw yesterday, the folks at UC/Chico seriously believed that the idea extended to professors who make use of the generic “he” or “his” in their classrooms. I still can’t quite believe that this really happened.
Anyway, as the best solution, FIRE urges the assistant secretary to adhere to the clear standard enunciated in the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, (1999). Under the Davis test, “harassment” consists of behavior that is so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it interferes with a victim’s “educational experience.”
No definition can ever be perfect in this area, but you’d have to agree that it’s a vast improvement over the one at Chico State and hundreds of other campuses. I hope that Assistant Secretary Ali is persuaded as well.