US Colleges respond to sexual -- harassment problem
Boston — One California university professor fired; another's pay docked; a tenured Harvard faculty member officially reprimanded: Sexual harassment on campus is receiving a failing grade.
At its most blatant, it involves a professor attempting to trade a grade for sexual favors.
Sexual harassment has "been on campus as long as there's been men and women on campus together," says one woman researching the problem. But not until recently -- in the wake of a still-pending lawsuit brought against Yale University and a sharpening focus on sexual harassment in the workplace -- have co-eds begun demanding "hands off."
On campuses in virtually every part of the country, administrators and student-faculty committees are searching for procedures to solve what is fast becoming a leading feminist issue:
* At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where male undergraduates outnumber females by 5 to 1, a student-faculty committee reported that for the school year ending in September 1979 the number of sexual harassment complaints increased three to four times over the rate for the preceding five years.
The committee agreed those cases had been best handled informally, without an official hearing, by a special administrative assistant. Although the report said such complaints involved only a small percentage of the women at MIT, it labeled sexual harassment a "significant problem" and urged that MIT's policies on sexual harassment be explicity stated and widely publicized on campus.
* At the University of Washington last year, president John Hogness inserted an order into the university code stating that sexual harassment is considered to be sex discrimination -- an illegal coercion that would be punished with various sanctions, including firing.
Dr. Joan Martin, associate dean of the University of Washington Graduate School and "adjunct ombudsman" for sexual harassment, estimates she dealt with a case a week before Mr. Hogness spoke out. Today, she says, widespread publicity of the university's get-tough policy has made professors more cautious -- and the number of complaints she handles has dropped off to about one a month.
* At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, women students are working with campus lawyers to draw up a formal grievance procedure that they hope will win support from faculty members. The women, who plan to testify at a state hearing on sexual harassment in early April, also are pushing the faculty union to include sexual harassment as grounds for dismissal in the union's next contract, which will be negotiated this summer.
* Among the other universities where administration officials have spoken out or where faculty and students are studying new policies are the University of Florida, the University of Minnesota, and Rutgers University. At San Jose State University in California, one professor was fired after allegedly fondling and propositioning five students. Similar charges brought against a professor at the University of California at Berkeley ended in a one-quarter suspension without pay for the teacher.
Although the numbers of complaints are growing, campus officials generally agree that sexual harassment is not actually increasing. Rather, they say, women are finally speaking out on a problem which, like rape, went unreported for years. And, again like rape, statistics are virtually impossible to pin down, because for every woman who reports a case, many others never speak up, researchers say.
Nor is the problem limited to women -- a small number of instances have involved abuse of men.
Those involved in handling the problem are careful to make clear that sexual harassment is not something that every woman who enrolls in college may encounter. But students should be alert to the possibility, they counsel.
The National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs, a group appointed by President Carter to conduct a study of the problem, estimates that 10 to 20 percent of women students across the country have been subjected to some form of such harassment. Other studies put that figure as high as 50 percent. Generally, the harassment involves either a threat or an implication that if the student does not comply, the professor will withhold a superior grade or favorable recommendation needed for the student's career advancement.
There are, however, a number of details that must be resolved. Because sexual harassment falls under wide-ranging definitions -- from telling degrading jokes, to pestering for a date, to actually pressuring a student into a sexual relationship -- the quandary most universities now face is determining exactly what sexual harassment is and how it should be punished on campus.
Equally serious is a concern voiced by the American Association of University Professors and by college administrators and women's groups as well: While agreeing that teachers must be stopped from abusing students, they warn that faculty members also must be protected from students who make false charges. A respected professional's career could be ruined, they note, with one well-publicized, albeit inaccurate, story.
For now, say many women, the best way to handle sexual harassment is through campus channels. Although the US Department of Health and Welfare has indicated that sexual harassment of students is a form of sexual discrimination -- and therefore illegal in an institution receiving federal aid -- it has never issued a formal policy on the subject.
What remains then, officials handling the problem say, is campus publicity. At universities where administrators make widely circulated statements about sexual harassment, faculty members are forewarned and less likely to abuse a student in this manner, they say.