Failure to deal with sexual harassment

Posted: October 18, 2010 by Jender in sexual harassment

A member of the committee responsible for handling sexual harassment complaints at a prominent (Leiter top 10) program in the U.S. contacted me in the fall of 2007. A confidential source had asked him to speak to me about possible sexual misconduct by Prof X, a faculty member in our department. I agreed to meet, and gave him the name of an undergraduate student who had spoken to me about the problem. After two interviews, the problem was referred to the university police on the grounds that one of the undergraduates they spoke with described what the police characterized as “first degree sexual assault.”

Between January and March 2008, the university police conducted dozens of interviews. Each interviewee was told that to reveal the nature of the investigation to Prof X would be to compromise a criminal investigation, and that that in itself was a prosecutable offense.

I was a fourth-year graduate student at the time. I was taking a works-in-progress seminar with Prof X. He would likely have been a member of my dissertation committee.

He finally learned of the investigation during spring break, and quickly retained an attorney. The attorney recognized that there was something egregious about the manner in which the university investigated the case. In particular, it failed to follow its own sexual harassment policy of notifying the accused within 45 days.

An agreement between the university and Prof X was signed in the summer of 2008. (I’ll refrain from disclosing the details, other than to note that the student received nothing.)

Both Prof X and the university are bound by the confidentiality clause of the agreement.

The take-home lessons?

(1) Given that women have little or nothing to gain, and in many cases a lot to lose, it is hard to advise female students in good faith to file a sexual harassment complaint. (Why is there no compensation from academic institutions for victims?)

(2) Sexual harassment policy training should be mandatory for graduate students. And faculty. And those serving on the sexual harassment grievance board.

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