SCENE; Administrative conference room at a major university. Five grim-faced faculty members sit around a long table and stare at THE ACCUSED, who sits at one end, apart and alone. He is well dressed, young middle-aged, nice looking but not particularly handsome. Each member of the COMMITTEE has in front of him or her a thick sheaf of papers, which they all consult from time to time. Just to the side, a woman sits apart from the committee. She is the FEDERAL AFFIRMATIVE ACTION OFFICER. At the head of the table, the PROVOST studies his papers briefly, then begins to speak. PROVOST (rises; to everyone): “This hearing is to inquire into allegations stemming from specific complaints against a faculty member of this university. Everyone is advised that the proceedings arc to be conducted in a fair and professional manner.” (He sits, opens a file folder, reads briefly, and then says to the ACCUSED) “So, Professor Bookbinder, when, precisely, did you start harassing
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As farcical as the above opening may appear, it is a drama that is being played out with increasing frequency across university and college campuses and even in some public school board rooms throughout the United States. For a while, such Star Chamber inquiries were held in secret (the preferred term is “in confidence”), but now their results are appearing in daily newspapers and professional tabloids.
For a time, such inquiries concerned isolated accusations of impropriety on the part of a male faculty member or administrator by female students or workers. Now, however, they seem to be coming in bunches. At one university in Texas, for example, four faculty members, including a former department head, stand accused of displaying “gender bias,” one of the several euphemisms being used by administrators to avoid the word “sex.” At another school, two faculty members have been denied tenure, they assert, on the basis of the hint of complaints of sexual harassment circulated among administrators by “secret memo.” At yet another school in the Southwest, the rumor is that as many as 16 faculty in the past three years have been forced to resign quietly or face charges of sexual harassment.
One department head in Alabama confidentially asserts that nationwide as many as a thousand faculty members were forced to resign or were denied tenure in 1992 when even the threat of sexual harassment complaints arose. He himself claims that he left his previous position at a major state university because he was told he “had a year to find another job,” or else he would also be targeted for similar complaints.
An attorney in Dallas, Texas, says that he has recently or is currently representing more than 30 professors, instructors, and secondary school teachers, all of whom have been accused of sexual harassment or sexually biased discrimination. His advice to all of them is “cut the best deal you can and resign,” although most of them prefer to fight what they see as nothing more than legal blackmail.
To the general public and most academics, this seems to be proper. These men have, in the parlance of our time, “hit on” women who were subordinate to them. They either threatened them with punishment if the women were not compliant or made an outright offer of better grades or job advancement in exchange for sexual favors. Or, at least, they have been accused of having done one or all of these things. If they are guilty, they should be severely punished, for women should be able to work or study without the threat of randy wolves prowling the hallways in search of vulnerable sex partners. Almost no one in the academy believes otherwise. Sexual harassment is a despicable form of intimidation that should, when it occurs, be stopped swiftly.
If that was what was going on in most of these cases, there would be no real problem. Women who have been victimized in this way could come forward, file their complaints, give proof of the damages done to them, and the guilty would be confronted, judged, and punished. Unfortunately, that is not happening in many—possibly more than many—instances. Instead, something far more dangerous is afoot.
In almost all the cases receiving media publicity—and many that are not—the women bringing the complaints are invoking a clause in their schools’ sexual harassment policy that has to do with the work (or study) place. If, in a woman’s opinion, a male superior’s behavior creates a “threatening environment” or makes her uncomfortable in any way, then she is able—indeed she is encouraged—to come forward with a complaint.
No proof is required. No witnesses are required. No blatant physical or even verbal abuse needs to have occurred. Indeed, all a woman has to do is to assert that she has developed an impression that her superior has sexual designs on her or even that his presence makes her uncomfortable. She might even have encouraged him, might, indeed, have been the originator of a flirtation or a solicitor of his attention. That does not matter. All that matters is that she is not happy with those attentions—real or imagined—when they are directed toward her.
Certainly, there are serious complaints. Overt propositions, requests for sexual favors, repeated badgering for dates or assignations, inappropriate comments on a woman’s sexuality all constitute clear violations of propriety if not a school’s stated policy. But at least some charges are, in the main, frivolous. In one instance, a woman complained that a professor “wiggled his eyebrows” at her in a suggestive way; in another, a woman claimed that a professor held a door open for her and let her pass by him so he could sneak a peek down the arm-hole of her sweater; in another, a computer operator said her superior tended to pull his chair too close to hers when he needed to read what was on her screen.
Silly as these complaints may sound, they are taken very seriously by the Office of Equal Opportunity, and they are sufficient cause for university officials to launch a full and sometimes secret investigation of a professor’s or administrator’s background, to interview potential witnesses, indeed to ruin the career of any academic if he has ever, at any time, made any untoward gesture or comment toward a female at the school. Instances can range back for years; there is no statute of limitations on a careless comment or thoughtless gesture, an off-color joke, or the reading aloud of published material, even great literature containing potentially offensive language.
Here is a list of several cases either pending or of recent vintage:
—An adult, married female student writes in a diary erotic fantasies about one of her professors. She and her husband separate shortly afterwards. The husband finds the diary and threatens to bring charges and/or a lawsuit against the professor, who has no personal relationship with the woman at all, unless the university acts against him.
—A woman approaches a university attorney about a professor she says has “bothered” her. The attorney advises her to wear a “wire” or carry a tape recorder to gather evidence. She enters the professor’s office and blatantly propositions him, even describes specific sexual acts she is willing to perform for him. He agrees and is lured into suggesting a time and place. He is later confronted with the tape, minus her proposition and suggestions, which have been erased, and invited to resign or face charges.
—An unmarried assistant professor invites a former and also unmarried student on a between-semesters date to a nearby town. On their return, he blatantly propositions her, but he docs not connect the proposition to any school function or activity; nor does he attempt to coerce her on the grounds that he, as a member of the university faculty, might do her harm. She refuses, and he takes her home; she files a complaint against him. He is reprimanded by his department for sexual harassment, even though the incident occurred on personal time, away from campus, between semesters, and between adults. The following fall he is advised not to put himself forward for tenure but to “start looking for another job.” He is terminated in the spring.
—A professor is asked for a ride home by a student he has known since childhood. On the way, she explains that her husband is gone and invites him, in what he infers is a suggestive tone, to come inside for a drink. He immediately pulls over into a convenience store parking lot, calls her a taxi from a pay telephone, and stands in clear view of the counter attendant until the cab arrives. She files charges against him the next morning for “humiliating and sexually harassing” her.
—A female student who has consistently bragged of her “former life” as a professional prostitute and of several present “lovers” approaches a professor from whom she has never had a class. She overtly propositions him; he accepts and follows her to her apartment. She files sexual harassment charges against him the next day. He is told to face charges, although his accuser is not named, or to resign.
—A male instructor fails a male student who has, in front of witnesses, made a provocative homosexual suggestion to him in a restaurant away from campus. The instructor rejects the advance, and when the final grades are posted, the student files a sexual harassment complaint. The instructor is suspended for two semesters “pending an investigation.”
Apart from these, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of cases, where complaints are based on far less obvious evidence. In some eases, students have stated merely that they “felt” a professor’s “eves on them” either during class or elsewhere.
One might argue—and most university officials do—that there is a system, a process in place for the investigation of all such complaints. It is generally established by faculty handbooks to deal with matters of professional misbehavior. But these systems were designed to handle cases where hard evidence could be produced, not situations where inference, innuendo, and even intuition and hearsay become admissible evidence. The basis of most complaints is subjective in the extreme, and since an alleged action or statement may have taken place in private, it comes down most often to the word of the accuser against the word of the accused.
Most departmental or college committees are ill-equipped to function as judiciary bodies, are often ignorant of the “rules of evidence” such as might function in a legal court, rules that do not apply in university procedures anyway. They are rarely trained in psychoanalysis, a vital tool necessary to determine whether a complainant’s “fearful feelings” are the result of genuine threats and insinuations. Hence, the procedures become little more than rubber stamps for administrators who want the “problem” dealt with rapidly and quietly. The most expedient method is to get rid of the accused faculty member. After all, professors can be replaced more readily than federal grants, and liability suits filed by dissatisfied complainants can be ruinously expensive. But the administrative bureaucrats go through the motions, anyway. And matters are usually handled “by the book,” even though the accused usually finds himself completely alone and without reliable advice.
Very few universities provide counsel or legal representation to an accused faculty member. It is more efficient to proceed from the point where the prima facie evidence is offered. It is a reductive process: the faculty member is male and claims he is innocent; the accuser is female and claims he is guilty; therefore, he is guilty. His options, if his university is beneficent, are equally simple; he can fight it through a lengthy and confused university process, where the “fix” is usually in, or he can resign and hope to find another position elsewhere.
A “fair hearing,” relying on “due process” as it is normally understood, usually does not happen any more often than the accused is found totally innocent. The institution acts as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury. The only role missing in what would ordinarily be seen as a judicial process is that of defense attorney. There, the “defendant” is on his own, faced with the enormously unjust proposition of proving himself innocent in the face of presumed guilt.
In an effort to build a strong case, most university officials will interview virtually any woman who has had contact with the professor and inform her that it is not only her right but also her obligation to report any improper behavior on the part of a superior—any superior. Sometimes pressure is applied; in at least some cases, threats of recrimination have been implied unless “the truth” is forthcoming. In at least one case, a female graduate student was told that her “continued progress toward a degree” might well depend on her “veracity.” (Ironically, she was cohabitating with the accused professor at the time, although university officials were unaware of this.)
When scrupulous inquisitors undertake their inquiries, they do not divulge the name of the accused, but only a complete idiot believes that the women being summoned for interview are in the dark about what is going on or who is on the hot seat. In one case, a departmental worker was on the phone soliciting witnesses against an accused professor even before he was aware that anyone had filed a complaint or before the investigation was officially underway. Her “enthusiasm” for gathering damning evidence soon reached the accused, which was the first he knew he was being investigated at all. Secrecy and confidentiality are rare commodities on any university campus, particularly when a sensational cause such as sexual harassment is involved.
Such investigations almost always turn up sufficient cause to proceed with a full inquiry. It is impossible for any faculty member to teach several thousand students over a period of years and not to offend somebody. It is particularly likely that complaints will be forthcoming when the accused is unpopular, politically controversial, or professionally threatening to his colleagues. It is not unheard of for a complainant to be amorously involved with a departmental rival of the accused, and it is not unusual for that rival to apply pressure on other women to come forward and file new and totally unexpected complaints along the way. They need not fear lying—perjury is not a crime within the university committee hearing—and they can change their stories at will if the accused proves elusive or too cunning in his responses.
Generally, the accused is not informed of who is being solicited for testimony or what might have been said. On the contrary, he is often warned to stay away from any woman he even suspects might speak against him. In some cases, he may be covertly given tidbits of what is being said against him, all designed to frighten him into a preemptive resignation. In one case, a faculty member was told secretly that if he did not resign forthwith, the university administration would “close ranks” against him and feed him to the press. “They’ll paint you black,” he was told. “Quit and save your family the embarrassment.”
One might assume that if a faculty member is completely innocent, he should be able to prove that easily enough and to go back to his position, his name cleared, his reputation intact. But proof of innocence, antithetical as it is to the entire system of jurisprudence, is even harder in cases where the charges are based on inference and subjective perception. As another attorney put it, “It’s not like murder, where you have to have a witness or a corpse or at least a weapon. It’s not like robbery, where you have something that was stolen. The accused doesn’t just have to prove he didn’t do it, but he has to prove that he never thought about doing it, that he never looked at the accusing individual and thought, ‘Hey, she’s pretty.’ God help him if he ever said that to anyone, even to his closest friend.”
In reality, no matter how ridiculous and unfounded complaints may eventually be proved to be or how completely an individual may be cleared of any charges or wrongdoing, the faculty member is tainted. His classes will not make, his committee assignments will be restricted, his ability to function as a counselor or colleague has been impaired, and he will have to work under a cloud of suspicion that he somehow “beat the rap.”
As some university officials have admitted (off the record, of course), in such matters as sexual harassment, established processes are totally inadequate. Like the Spanish Inquisition, they are designed to ferret out guilt and mete out punishment, not to seek truth. Once a departmental committee meets to hear a complaint, the word has probably already come down from the higher administration, and the verdict is pro forma. In a sense, whatever opportunities offered to the accused faculty member for defense are predicated on the fallacy of the complex question. There is no doubt that he must have done this—for he stands accused by a student. The student’s record does not matter, nor do possible personal motives. The only meaningful question for the committee is what to do about “the problem in the department.”
No appellate committee at the college, university, or system level is likely to overturn a departmental committee’s ruling. After all, if the department head and attendant committees want the guy gone, if the higher administration wants him gone as well, why should they interfere? If they buck the system too hard, they might be targeted themselves. The only true recourse an innocent party has is to endure the drumhead justice of the university and to take them to a real court. But this is more difficult than it seems, and it is marvelous!)’ expensive, usually well beyond the reach of a typical faculty salary.
The complexities are numerous. It can take anywhere from several months to a year or more before the university procedures are exhausted and the faculty member is terminated or forced to resign. His suit, then, cannot be filed on the basis of whether or not he was guilty of sexual harassment; rather, he must attack on the basis that he was wrongfully dismissed. This can take another year or more to get to court, and even if he wins, appeals and filed motions can delay a final decision for as long as half a decade. The school does not mind waiting. It has bags of money to spend on defense and all the time in the world.
Another Dallas attorney points out that most schools would far rather risk a “wrongful dismissal” suit than “take a federal hit.” The former could cost the school hundreds of thousands, but the latter could run into millions of dollars and create a “domino effect” that could continue for years. The faculty member, though, who is not teaching and is not drawing a salary because he has taken the matter into a public forum, probably is not employable. Further, about all he can hope to win from his suit is restitution of back pay and restoration to his former position, full in the knowledge that everyone on the campus knows he was guilty—after all, did the university not say so?—and that his colleagues and department head resent his presence. Only then can he sue for damages and attempt to prove his innocence.
In the meantime, legal bills mount up. One faculty member was looking at more than $25,000 by the end of his university committee hearings. Another $15,000 was required to file suit, and yet another $10,000 would be due when the case went to court. He might not recover these costs, even if he wins, not without filing a damages suit, which will require even more up-front money with even less likelihood of a return.
It is an incredible situation. In a way, it is as if a New Inquisition has risen, wherein only the suggestion of heresy is the occasion for a full auto-da-fé, wherein somebody has to be pilloried to maintain the stability of a corrupt system. Perhaps a more contemporary if not more fitting analogy would be found in the early 50’s, when professors were called in and grilled about the political affiliations of their youth. Now, as then, comparatively sane, logical, and intellectual administrators find themselves fearfully responding to mass hysteria. America’s universities saw the ruination of many careers and the almost complete destruction of academic freedom, all to protect schools from governmental or social reprisals if they stood their ground and exercised constitutionally mandated rights.
But this is no illustration of a philosophical question about due process and fundamental democratic rights or academic freedom. It is a dangerous mania that is sweeping through the nation’s universities and creating a “climate of fear” that forces individuals to be so guarded in their associations, casual comments, and even formal lectures that they begin to suspect everyone around them of being spies, ready to do them in for the most innocent of remarks or gestures if they give offense on any grounds whatsoever. Every coed is a potential Mata Hari, every colleague a potential fink.
At this writing, cases are being prepared to fight against this unbridled abridgment of individual liberty and attack on academic freedom. But in the meantime, no one knows for sure how many hundreds—or even thousands—of highly qualified and capable faculty members have quietly resigned and faded off into the darkness to avoid public scandal and personal attacks by the very schools to which they had dedicated their careers. Victims of hysterical reactions or collegial jealousy or departmental politics, some of these people have given up 20 or 30 years of tenure because unlike even an accused thief or murderer, they were not permitted to face their accusers, were denied due process, and were forced to prove their innocence in the face of abstract and often totally subjective and unproven testimony.
Thus, the dramatic opening to this essay is not so incredible at all. It may well be a fairly accurate representation of a tragedy that is being played out on some university campus every week of every-semester. One dean said that he was taking early retirement rather than face another case. He believed that universities in America were entering a “dark period,” where their function, their value, indeed their very existence will be called into question by a society that already sees them as general wastes of time and money, filled with myopic, oversexed professors whose interests run far too much to the philosophical and away from the pragmatic, too much toward nubile young coeds and away from solid “family values.”
The current situation involving sexual harassment cases seems to underscore the correctness of this bleak vision. But regardless of what status universities may enjoy in the future, the most tragic result of this drama may be its negative impact on women’s advancement in the academy. The inevitable result of the probability of unfounded accusations resulting in the ruination of a career is that men will become suspicious of any female colleague who expresses friendliness or seeks close professional association, Male professors will eventually become fearful of so much as speaking to female students, let alone offering them counsel and advice on matters academic. If almost any comment or aside can be deliberately misconstrued as a double entendre and used as a basis for complaint, why risk speaking to am woman at all? Why not draw an invisible line between men and women in the academy and establish, if need be, a separate but equal policy that prevents all contact between the sexes?
For years, women have justifiably complained that the academy is a “man’s bastion” and “old boy” network; if this trend toward unjust treatment for those merely accused of sexual harassment continues, if women can bring unfounded and unproved allegations without fear of reprisals if they are demonstrated to be false or brought only for personal gain, then the very forces that set out to protect women from unwanted sexual advances may be guilty of building higher and tighter walls between males and females in the university. Collegiality cannot possibly be achieved when one gender works and lives in fear of the other; the inevitable result will be an effective barrier to opportunities for female advancement.
On the other hand, women are not necessarily impervious to this “witch hunt” mentality. At least a handful of cases involve complaints by men against their female professors who “came on” to them. Likewise, there are currently cases involving homosexual and lesbian advances on students. We might recall that the Grand Inquisitor was wonderfully multicultural in his charges.
It may be time to stop and define precisely what is meant by sexual harassment, rather than leave it to abstract interpretation and subjective impression. There is no question that it exists, or that it is an evil in the work or study place. But while clear violations need to be reported and perpetrators punished, it should never have become a weapon to be used against those who are merely careless or unpopular or who have merely trod on the wrong toes in the course of building their careers. It may well be up to those who started the hysteria to stop it before a “backlash” occurs that defeats whatever purposes have been achieved by those who seek to protect women—and men—from unwanted sexual advances.
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