Sexual Harassment Training and Collective Guilt

Glenn Ricketts

Compulsory sexual harassment training is back. 

            Not that it ever entirely went away. But mandatory training at colleges and universities aimed at teaching adults not to harass each other is in the news again, after a rather long lull. And back as well is the debate. Is sexual harassment training a wise use of people’s time and institutional resources? Does it make a college a safer place to work and study?

            Last August  the University of Iowa ordered its entire faculty and staff – more than 17,800 people – to undergo such “training” in the wake of allegations against a professor who was said to have offered several of his female undergraduate students higher grades in exchange for allowing him to fondle their breasts. He may have assaulted one of the students. The local prosecutor, searching for a statute that fit the facts, charged the professor with four counts of “attempted bribery.” 

            Many faculty members at the University of Iowa were puzzled that the institution responded to this case by ordering that the entire faculty and staff undergo sexual harassment training. The University seemed to be assuming that the professor’s (alleged) bad conduct represented a widespread failure to understand either what sexual harassment is or that it is wrong. 

            Outside observers also wondered at the University’s overreaching. Ernst Benjamin, then Secretary General of the AAUP, observed, “many faculty would feel that they were being blamed for the actions of an individual, and that would be unfair. One would want to look into whether there is a climate problem or an individual problem.” Peter Wood, then NAS’s Executive Director, pointed out to Inside Higher Education that the University had begun a campaign in 2006 to raise awareness of its increasingly stringent policies on sexual harassment. He said, "It's ludicrous to think that the faculty member who was arrested was unaware that his actions were against University policy.” 

            But as the mandatory training continued, the question of its propriety was pushed offstage when the accused professor, following publication of the charges against him in August, committed suicide. This shock had scarcely subsided when in November another University of Iowa professor was accused of sexual impropriety by a former graduate student and likewise killed himself.

            These suicides surely reflect the troubled lives of the two professors, but just as surely they reflect a context at the University of Iowa and more widely in American higher education in which a mere accusation of sexual harassment can end a career.  Guilty or not, alleged perpetrators can end up fired, humiliated, ostracized, and with few options. The proponents of mandatory sexual harassment training often say they want to effect a “climate change” on campus. And it seems they often succeed, at least to the extent of signaling the opprobrium that awaits anyone who is accused.

            The dangers of being accused are widely known, regardless of “training.” During the last wave of attention to sexual harassment, the playwright David Mamet dramatized sexual harassment accusations in a two-act play, Oleanna (1992). The accusations, which derail a professor’s bid for tenure, make for high drama, and Oleanna has since been staged numerous times and also made into a movie.   Which is to say, sexual harassment training is seldom breaking news to the people forced to undergo it. After the televised confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 in which he was accused by Anita Hill of sexual harassment, and after the numerous allegations against President Bill Clinton for sexually harassing various women, there must be very few Americans who are unfamiliar with the concept, and fewer still who are faculty members at universities, where sexual harassment training has been widespread for twenty years.

            Still, some men (and presumably some women) continue to harass. Why? Perhaps there is no deeper answer than that men are not angels. Some find a thrill in harassing and give into the temptation. Can “sexual harassment training” for entire faculty help these men (mostly men) control themselves? Or does it does lend a dark glamour to the activity and make it all that more libidinously attractive? 

            Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the latest innovation in sexual harassment training: online programs. These seem to be catching on rapidly.

            Typically they involve one to three hours in which participants work at their own computers, rather than attending all-day group sessions with lengthy presentations by administrators, question-and-answer sessions by “facilitators,” group discussions, etc. Many schools have eagerly adopted the newer online-based programs, in view of their logistical flexibility and significantly lower costs.  Presumably, many faculty members are also relieved.

            The “mandatory” part, however, remains a sticking point for professors. Some object because of the imposition on their time, while others consider the training an affront, tantamount to an accusation. That’s emphatically the view of Professor Alexander McPherson, a microbiologist, biochemist and lab supervisor at the University of California, Irvine. As a condition for his compliance with the sexual harassment “training,” program, McPherson asked UC Irvine administration to provide him with one-line statement acknowledging that his compliance carried no implication that he had ever harassed anyone during his thirty-year career at the school. The University refused, and so did McPherson, who argued that the program served mainly to cover the school’s anticipated legal liabilities and to placate ideologically motivated interest groups:

             I believe the training is a disgraceful sham. As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ primarily designed to relieve the university of liability in the case of lawsuits. I have not been shown any evidence that this training will discourage a harasser or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment. What’s more, the state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repulsive and offensive. I find it offensive not only because of insinuations it carries and the potential stigma it implies, but also because I am being required to do so for political reasons. The fact is that there is a vocal political/interest group promoting this silliness as part of a politically correct agenda that I don’t particularly agree with. [LA Times, Nov. 21, 2008]

           His principled defiance had consequences: he was removed from his position as a lab supervisor and threatened with unpaid leave from his job. As of this writing, however, he remains steadfast in his refusal.

            Gary Rhoades, who recently replaced Ernst Benjamin as General Secretary of the AAUP, doesn’t seem to share his predecessor’s sympathy for the faculty at Iowa. He doesn’t endorse the sanctions imposed on Professor McPherson, but thinks that mandatory sexual harassment training is a good idea: as he sees it, “sexual harassment has been and continues to be a real phenomenon. The evidence is clear.” As a matter of fact, Rhoades thinks that much more needs to be done to combat it. In the first place, he argues, mandatory training or testing occurs in other areas of academic life, and carries no implication of guilt or suspicion, as in the instance of research involving the use of human subjects. Why should sexual harassment training be viewed any differently? Besides, whatever the internal effects of such training on potential harassers, there’s nothing inherently wrong with institutions acting in response to bad publicity that may tarnish their images. 

            Sexual harassment training at the very least conveys the message that any school is serious about correcting behavior of which society as a whole does not approve. At the same time, Rhoades agrees that such “training” by itself is not likely to reduce or eliminate sexual harassment, which he believes is “underreported,” and probably pervasive in the contemporary academy. He doesn’t cite specific evidence for this view, but refers to unnamed corroborating “research.”

            At any rate, Rhoades thinks that sexual harassment “training” of any kind is a necessary first step, but that far more resolute measures are also in order if we are to have any hope of significantly reducing the continuing widespread occurrence of harassment in academic precincts. “The change we seek,” he says, “requires an exercise of political will and an excising of cultural wills.” First, he notes that appropriate enforcement mechanisms for dealing with sexual harassment are already widely in place, so let’s use them. He hopes “academic administrators at various levels will systematically and appropriately be receptive to reports of harassment, forcefully pursue those cases, and perhaps most important of all, be evaluated by their own supervisors according to whether they do so.” 

            Administrators have apparently been remiss in addressing the “harassment” problem on many campuses, and should have their feet held more tightly to the fire if they continue to fail in their responsibilities. Faculty, however, must address certain “cultural ills,” which he says means that “we must all take responsibility to embed in our lives a pattern of interaction that clarifies, monitors, and maintains boundaries of appropriate behavior.” Hard as it might be, professors must nevertheless overcome “the academic cultural norm of not confronting the bad behavior of peers. An argument could be made that as a profession, academics are much better at disputing colleagues’ scholarly positions than at sanctioning the "behavior of peers.” 

            Is there really a “cultural norm” specific to higher education that specifies not confronting bad behavior? If there is such a norm, did the AAUP have a hand in creating it? In fall 2007, for example, the AAUP’s report, Freedom in the Classroom, offered a whitewash of the bad behavior of professors using their classrooms to engage in partisan political advocacy. At that point, the AAUP was sure that such things either don’t happen at all or are so rare as to be insignificant. Can the AAUP foster a “see no evil” approach on one topic and a “rats R us” approach on another? Why not? 

            The NAS has been consistently critical of the kind of mandatory group “training” programs under consideration here. Our 1993 statement, Sexual Harassment and Academic Freedom, continues to be cited by faculty members across the country looking for a sensible middle way. As Peter Wood observed last summer with regard to the incident at Iowa, “One case does not make a pattern.” I also think that Professor McPherson gets it right: it’s hard to see that any kind of preliminary “training” would effectively deter actual harassers or make colleagues more aware of them. Don’t most criminals usually do their dirty work secretly, fully aware that it’s illegal?

            Barry Dank, an emeritus professor sociology at California State University, Long Beach, editor of the journal Sexuality and Culture, and long-time NAS member, has been blogging about the University of Iowa sexual harassment training program. Dank takes particular aim at the hard-to-credit claims of UI Provost Wallace Loh, who says the University is making “extraordinary progress” with its effort to cure faculty and staff of any remaining tendency to harass:

            I have no doubt that the vast majority of faculty and staff and TAs who have gone thru said education or training or indoctrination believe that such does not reflect so-called progress but are more likely to believe it is simply an attempt to avoid the University of Iowa becoming involved in legal entanglements.

           That assessment certainly strikes us as accurate, although it’s unlikely to have any effect on Provost Loh, who seems to feel very, very good about the redemptive catechesis he’s mandated for his University’s faculty.           

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

June 5, 2024


Subpoenas for All!

Ohio Northern University knaws its teeth with an appitite for vindictive lawfare....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...