Now It Can Be Told! Revelations from the Secret Annals of Sexual Harassment

Glenn Ricketts

Several colleges and universities have recently imposed mandatory sexual harassment “training” programs on their faculties. We’ve commented here and here. These policies recall the Golden Age of sexual harassment hysteria—that time in the 1980s and 1990s of fantastic accusations, arbitrary administrative interventions, summary dismissals and weird curtailments of academic freedom.

In 1993, NAS dipped its oar into these waters with its statement, Sexual Harassment and Academic Freedom. It has proven to be a durable document. We continue to receive requests for reprints. The recent revival of sexual harassment training, however, prompts us to dig deeper in the treasure chest. In 1995, NAS surveyed our members about their experiences with harassment codes. We asked for first-hand accounts and supporting documentation from those who’d run afoul of the sexual harassment policies. The results were compiled in a report, Sexual Harassment and the Academic Workplace, which, for reasons lost in the mists of time, was never published. In a fair number of cases, the participants asked that their names and those of their institutions be suppressed. Perhaps that made the report as a whole seem too shadowy to be released.

But it contained some forthright exposition of cases that seem well worth recalling. 

1)      For several years in the 1980s, William Irons, an evolutionary anthropologist at Northwestern University, offered an academically demanding but very popular course, The Evolution of Human Sexuality. The course focused on various evolutionary theories regarding the development of distinct sex roles between men and women, including the inevitably controversial nature/nurture question. Human Sexuality was usually oversubscribed, and many students requested that Professor Irons offer it more frequently. 

In the fall of 1988, however, he was surprised to find himself accused of sexual harassment by a student who alleged that he had created a “hostile environment” in his classroom.  The student vehemently disagreed with Professor Irons’ scholarly opinion that male/female differences were largely the result of innate, rather than environmental factors. She told him his views constituted sexual harassment, and he replied that he was just teaching his subject as accurately as he knew how. She was undeterred, however, and complained to the associate dean of Arts and Sciences, who asked Professor Irons to respond in writing to the allegations. But before he was able to do so, he learned that the complaint had also been shown to several faculty members in the Women’s Studies program, who commenced an “investigation” of their own, and began preparing a response.  This breached the University’s formal procedures, which required strict confidentiality in such matters. The administration, however, declined to take action against the faculty members who had launched the ad hoc investigation sans the accused’s right of self-defense. 

Irons provided a written rebuttal to the dean, who then dropped the charges. But, over Irons’ objections, the dean insisted that the complaint remain in his permanent personnel file. 

The case then took a still more ominous turn when the Anthropology Department’s administrative assistant strongly advised Irons to discontinue teaching Human Sexuality. Northwestern University’s Women’s Center, she informed him, was planning to “monitor” the course in the future - probably through students who would enroll just to search for evidence that he promoted views at odds with feminist orthodoxy—and that he could likely expect further complaints. Neither the dean nor the department chairman was willing to discuss the irregular manner in which the case had been handled, or to ensure the integrity of Irons’ academic freedom. To his further dismay, he attended a social gathering where his chairman and one of the Women’s Studies faculty members openly discussed his case. In view of the likelihood of additional “harassment” complaints and his virtual abandonment by the University administration, Professor Irons decided to scrap Human Sexuality and to avoid any mention of male/female differences in his other classes as well.

2)      In the spring of 1992, the late Richard Dinsmore, a tenured associate professor of history at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, was charged with sexual harassment and summarily dismissed from his position—before he was even notified of the specific accusations against him. As he learned subsequently, the University’s vice-president for academic affairs had initiated an “investigation,” based on a report that one of his female students “felt uncomfortable” with their “student/teacher relationship.”  According to the vice-president, Dinsmore had engaged in “inappropriate touching,” by assisting the student as she donned her coat on several occasions, and had also “intimidated” her by explaining that, as a tenured faculty member, he could not be dismissed. Beyond the question of Dinsmore’s alleged misconduct with his student, the vice-president also cited his once having complained during a faculty meeting about the stridently anti-male attitudes frequently expressed by a female colleague in the same forum. This, said the vice-president, demonstrated his “hostile attitude” toward women and gave weight to the student’s allegation. She also objected strongly to several books assigned in Dinsmore’s course in intellectual history, which she characterized as having “inappropriate academic content” and being “offensive to women.” 

One of the books was John Bradshaw’s Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child; the other was Toni Grant’s Being a Woman: Fulfilling Femininity and Finding Love, which is a psychologist’s brief against some aspects of contemporary feminism. It is easy to imagine both books grated against the sensibility of committed feminists, but they were not outside the subject of the course. 

Dinsmore was wholly unaware of the vice-president’s clandestine “investigation” and thus unable to speak in his own defense or question the students from whom the vice president had solicited testimony. As he later learned, some of those interviewed by the vice-president were faculty members who shared her feminist ideological perspective and were also sharply critical of his course content and reading selections.  When he was informed of the senior administrator’s adverse finding of “sexual harassment,” he was immediately suspended from teaching and shortly thereafter dismissed from his job by the University president. Professor Dinsmore responded by filing an employment grievance, and in 1993, an independent arbitrator ordered his immediate reinstatement without loss of salary or benefits, ruling that the charges were totally baseless and that the University had acted in complete disregard of his procedural rights. The University appealed the arbitrator’s ruling and Dinsmore, now obliged to work as a real estate appraiser to support himself, filed a federal law suit alleging that his civil rights had been violated. 

In March 1995, nearly three years after his dismissal, the federal district court for the state of Maine upheld the arbitrator’s ruling and concluded that Dinsmore’s free speech and due process rights had been violated by the University. In addition to his lost wages, benefits and legal expenses, he was awarded $500,000 in punitive damages. The court noted that no other faculty member at the University had been ever been dismissed for sexual harassment, and that far more credible allegations in previous instances had not even resulted in disciplinary action against the accused. This case, the court concluded, reflected little more than the University vice-president’s intense personal hostility toward Professor Dinsmore. He regained his teaching position at the University, but only after three years of anguish, professional isolation and towering legal expenses which he had no certainty of recouping prior to the judgment in his favor.

These two cases involved tenured professors with otherwise impeccable reputations and professional accomplishments. Where did that leave untenured junior faculty members and adjunct instructors? For that matter, even high profile academic celebrities could just as easily be sucked into the vortex. 

Concurrent with Richard Dinsmore’s travails no less than Professor Alan Dershowitz found himself in the sexual harassment docket at Harvard Law School. He had asked one of his criminal law classes to consider that men might sometimes be falsely accused of rape. To his amazement, several female students took instant, vehement exception, and insisted that women never, ever speak anything except the truth where that subject is concerned. By raising the question even hypothetically, they complained, Dershowitz had created a “hostile environment” in his classroom, and thus subjected them to sexual harassment. Although the students eventually decided not to file a formal complaint against him, Dershowitz chose as a precautionary measure to tape all of his subsequent his lectures. 

The climate hasn’t changed very much at Harvard either. As illustrated by the more recent experience of the University’s former president Lawrence Summers, much less than discussions of rape law can create what some ideologically energized female faculty will regard as a “hostile environment.”


                                    *       *      *

Those were the days when a shiny new phrase, “hostile environment,” had helped to inflate the concept of sexual harassment beyond any knowable boundaries. Where did the freedom to discuss controversial or even not so controversial subjects leave off and conscientious concern for the fragile sensibilities of students begin? No one knew, and this suited the feminist proponents of the theory quite well. A vague and infinitely malleable doctrine founded on subjective claims was much more useful for imposing campus-wide intimidation. The “hostile environment” theory was also an excellent way to shut down the intellectual freedom of one’s opponents, especially since arguing against the theory could itself be construed as contributing to a hostile environment. The new rule had a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose character.

One of the best responses to this combination of intimidation and trickery, as Peter Wood noted in his recent post, was Daphne Patai’s 1998 book, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism. Patai described the “Sexual Harassment Industry,” whose operating assumptions derive from a deeply misandrist feminist ideological hegemony, metaphysically and aggressively hostile to men. “Sexual harassment,” she argues,      

seems often to be little more than a label for excoriating men. It has become the synecdoche for general male awfulness. Its real function at this moment, in addition to keeping feminist passions at fever pitch, is to serve as the conduit by which some extreme feminist tenets about the relations between sexes enter everyday life with minimum challenge. No longer a well-intentioned effort to gain justice for women, it has been turned into a tool (powered by a legal apparatus and manipulated by a professional cadre of trainers and enforcers) for implementing, and indeed normalizing, what was once merely a marginal and bizarre feminist worldview.

(Heterophobia, p. 11) 


Thus, far beyond the reasonable goal of protecting women (or in some cases, one would think, men) from unwanted sexual advances in the academic workplace, the SHI, in Patai’s shorthand usage, seeks to impose comprehensive thought reform and social re-arrangement, which needn’t await the occurrence of any actual incidents of harassment (hence the enthusiasm in some quarters for compulsory “training”). Typically, the SHI juggernaut has several components:  

A) Feminist ideologues, often found in women’s studies departments who in their turn are assisted by true-believing administrators at various levels, such as Richard Dinsmore’s antagonist at the University of Maine. 

B) Administrative faint-hearts, as William Irons discovered at Northwestern, who shrink from confrontation with the feminist enforcers.

C) Others who believe that compulsory “training” or acquiescence in patently preposterous allegations will forestall unfavorable publicity or possible litigation.

D) Unabashed opportunists or cynics who see the SHI’s methods and assumptions as an irresistible source of power that can come in handy in all sorts of circumstances. 

These anxieties, in turn, have spawned an extremely lucrative subsidiary industry which stands ready to provide workshops, seminars and now online training, to assist you in making your campus “harassment free.” 

Even if the waters seem calmer at the moment, the institutional machinery illustrated by the cases of William Irons and Richard Dinsmore remains intact. The egregious trampling on the procedural rights of the accused, the ominous abridgment of academic freedom, the arbitrary administrative intrusions or poisoned collegial relations left by the SHI’s previous rampage have prompted little reflection.  

Apart from a few campuses, there’s been no sustained national drive to rewrite existing codes in a way that would make nebulous concepts such as “hostile environment” more precise, or to provide for the punishment of false or malicious “harassment” charges.   There are a few signs of hope. Case Western Reserve University, for example, is rewriting its harassment code in an attempt to bring it into line with current Constitutional law. But generally, colleges and universities are sticking by their 1990s policies unless and until they are overruled in court. The mischievous and subjective elasticity with which “sexual harassment” was construed in the 1990s remains in play, just less visible than when it was a novelty. Likewise the breezy manner whereby administrators dispensed with formal complaint procedures during the Golden Age of sexual harassment has become routine on many campuses. Professional organizations, such as the AAUP, have lately been noising the idea that sexual harassment policies, far from being excessive, need to become even more powerful. 

As for NAS, we think we got it right the first time. We stand by our 1993 statement. And we offer the Irons and Dinsmore cases as reminders of what an illiberal regime can and will do to faculty members who, though guiltless of anything but legitimate use of their academic freedom, run afoul of our generation’s thought police.

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