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Sexual harassment laws further shift academic power relations
STANFORD -- Reducing the rate of sexual harassment in colleges and universities may require mandatory training for faculty, staff and students, labor economist Myra Strober told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Wednesday, Feb. 23.
Universities also should appoint accusers' peers to grievance committees in cases that can't be resolved informally, Strober said, and publicly report sanctions - although not necessarily the names of those involved - when someone is found guilty of sexual harassment.
"It is important that potential complainants know that something happens when a complaint against a harasser is shown to be valid after a fair procedure," she said, and the reports themselves may serve as sanctions and deterrents.
Strober is a professor in the Stanford University School of Education, who also serves as an adviser in sexual harassment cases under Stanford's recently revised sexual harassment policy.
The level of sexual harassment at universities is difficult to pinpoint, she said, but studies estimate that 20 to 30 percent of female students nationwide are sexually harassed at least once during their higher education. This rate is somewhat lower than the "most reliable estimate" of workplace harassment from two surveys of 20,000 federal employees. In those surveys, 42 percent of federal female employees and 15 percent of male employees said they were sexually harassed within the previous two years.
The incidence in academia tends to be greater for students in graduate school and is greatest in medical schools, Strober said.
"Some of the harassment experienced by women students comes from male students," she said, and "students not only harass one another, but also harass faculty."
A 1988 survey at a small state university found that "both male and female faculty were the recipients of student sexual harassment in the form of sexual teasing, jokes and comments, uninvited requests for dates, and uninvited gifts or calls of a sexual nature," Strober said.
A 1988 survey of more than 200 institutions found about two-thirds had written policies prohibiting sexual harassment. These policies and the laws that generated them, she said, represent a continuing gradual "rebalancing of power" in academia, from predominantly male tenured faculty and administrators to women faculty and untenured staff and students.
Nonetheless, sexual harassment still "is often seen as an acceptable part of the academic culture," she said. The attitude of some was summed up, she reported, on a mug sold in the student bookstore at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980s. The motto it bore, she said, was "Sexual harassment is not a problem around here; it's one of the benefits."
With the advent of sexual harassment laws, she said, "some faculty have voiced concern about losing such 'rights' to free speech and academic freedom as telling sexual jokes in class, commenting on women's physical appearance, posting certain kinds of pictures or posters in one's office or 'dating' a student." Recent court decisions have convinced most faculty and administrators "they no longer have these rights," Strober said, but changing the ingrained behavior of some and fairly adjudicating claims still remain problems for universities, who face legal liability.
Some universities have tried sending staff supervisors, academic deans and department chairs to workshops, she said, but the only reported study to track the impact of this strategy found no difference in sexual harassment complaint rates.
Even workshops led by experienced professionals won't work, she said, if those who most need to change their behavior resist attending them.
"Most people don't voluntarily attend meetings where their belief systems are challenged and they need to do the hard work of learning to behave in new ways," she said. "So we come to the tough question: Should administrators mandate faculty attendance at sexual harassment seminars? In my view, they should."
Some faculty may see this as an "infringement of their autonomy and their academic freedom," she said, and "in some sense it is." But "faculty may no longer do as they please in these matters. This aspect of autonomy and academic freedom must give way in the rebalancing of power needed to meet new legal realities."
Those realities are interpretations of discrimination legislation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Supreme Court that make employers legally responsible for taking action to prevent sexual harassment, Strober said. Universities are covered by two federal laws and, in some instances, state laws as well.
"Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sexual harassment of both students and employees in any higher educational institution that receives federal funds," she said. "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment of employees, including student employees. Under both laws, the university may be liable for monetary damages in sexual harassment suits."
Mandatory seminars to cope with new laws are not without precedent in academia, Strober said.
"At Stanford University a year or so ago, all faculty were required to attend a seminar on Stanford's new accounting system. Faculty who failed to attend could not use the system to order materials or claim reimbursement," she said. Stanford needed to be in compliance with federal accounting regulations, and faculty needed to develop new behaviors.
"Compliance with sexual harassment laws requires a similar process. Top university administrators need to mandate faculty attendance at seminars that teach people, in essence, how to obey new federal and state legislation."
Strober said she was stressing faculty training only because of the debate over faculty academic freedom.
"Other potential harassers, including staff and students, also need mandatory training," she said.
"Even if all students, faculty and staff receive mandatory sexual harassment training, no doubt some will continue to behave according to old norms and no doubt concerns, complaints and grievances will be brought against them," Strober said.
"The second tough question facing universities today is how to adjudicate these matters. Once again, I concentrate here on faculty harassment, because adjudication involving faculty (and especially tenured faculty) is the most complicated."
The vast majority of students who have reported sexual harassment, she said, sought advice on how to stop the harassment rather than retribution. So, researchers generally agree that "a good sexual harassment policy provides for informal assistance in getting situations resolved without the complainant having to resort to a formal complaint, which requires - for reasons of due process - that the alleged harasser learn the identity of the complainant."
When informal resolution fails, Strober said, universities need a formal grievance procedure. Many, including the American Association of University Professors, advocate using the same procedure as used for other types of grievances. Strober disagrees.
"Sexual harassment grievance procedures should not require, as most grievance procedures do, that as a first step the complainant directly contact the person against whom the grievance is being lodged," she said. "No woman student plagued by the discomfort and trauma of sexual harassment should be asked to confront her harasser as a first step to filing a grievance."
In addition, the second step of the normal grievance procedure generally requires that the department chair or dean mediate the dispute.
But many women, and especially graduate students, are fearful of bringing even an informal concern to the attention of their dean or department chair, Strober said, "because they fear irreparable harm to their career" and suspect the dean or chair to be personal friends of the faculty member involved. Universities who wish to reduce formal complaints may succeed by making the chair or dean the mediator, she said, but "such thinking is shortsighted."
"For a sexual harassment policy to be successful, the women's community at a university must trust the university administration," Strober said. "The first step in building that trust is having a grievance procedure for harassment that does not require a woman to confront the alleged harasser as a first step and does not require that the department chair or dean be the first-line mediators or adjudicators in the grievance."
As an alternative, Strober suggested an ombudsperson or other specially designated person be used to inform the alleged harasser of the charge and to provide the first steps of mediation.
More universities should also consider placing students on adjudication panels when a complaint is brought by a student against a faculty member, she said. Such policies build trust and "represent an important rebalancing of power between faculty and students and between men and women. "
The University of New Hampshire has used such a procedure, she said, and the faculty senate of the University of Washington will soon consider giving student or staff minority representation on sexual harassment panels to hear charges against a tenured faculty member.
Strober also endorsed the University of Minnesota's policy of reporting annually to the faculty senate on the status of complainants and alleged harassers and final outcomes.
If new gender relation norms can be developed among faculty, Strober said, they will have "important spillover effects on student attitudes and behavior" and society in general.
"Because equity in academia has become so critical to workplace equity," she said, "the ability of educational institutions to assure equity for women students has become ever more important."
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