Saturday, March 19, 2016

Universities are failing to adequately protect against sexual harassment

Institutions of higher education are expected to provide safe, appropriate learning and working environments. This should include freedom from sexual assault and harassment. Unfortunately, these phenomena continue to be a problem on many campuses across the United States. According to a survey by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 62 percent of female students reported having been victims of sexual harassment.  Another recent survey involving college students found 23 percent of female students have been sexually assaulted.   

What is more problematic is the manner in which universities have recently been responding to sexual harassment claims. On March 9th, UC Berkeley school officials reported that the Dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law, Sujit Chaudhry, had been placed on immediate leave following the filing of a lawsuit by Chaudhry’s former executive assistant claiming sexual harassment. That Friday, in the midst of public outcry, Chaudhry resigned from his position.  But all of these consequences against the Dean only occurred because his misconduct became public after the lawsuit was filed. Before the news broke, the Dean’s punishment was a 10 percent reduction of his six-figure salary for a year, that he seek counseling, and apologize to his ex-assistant.

But what happened with the former employee of the Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law is not an isolated incident for the UC school and pales in comparison to how the school has previously handled such cases. Just last year the school dealt with another sexual harassment claim against their world-renowned astronomy professor, Geoffrey Marcy. The same office that handled the claims against Chaudhry also found Marcy had engaged in inappropriate behavior with students, including groping, kissing, or massaging them. In July 2015, campus officials’ response to Marcy was a mere warning that he could be fired if he harassed anyone again. It was a Buzzfeed article in October 2015 that publicly revealed his misconduct and the university’s poor response.  Ultimately, Marcy resigned “under the pressure from his Berkeley colleagues.

Unfortunately, the failure to properly respond to sexual harassment is not only limited to UC Berkeley. Another UC school, UCLA, is also dealing with sexual harassment issues. Similar to Cal,  UCLA’s faculty is currently pressuring the school to fire a history professor found by the administration to have engaged in sexual misconduct towards two female graduate students. Before UCLA informed the faculty about the professor’s transgressions, the professor’s punishment included a $3,000 fine and a 10-week suspension without pay. 

These three sexual harassment cases demonstrate that it takes BOTH public revelation of a faculty member’s sexual misconduct towards its students or staff AND faculty protests over the misbehavior in order for these institutions to take any meaningful action to address incidents of sexual harassment. This is horrible. This sends the message to students and university employees alike that they cannot count on their academic institutions to protect their safety and their right to be free from sex discrimination when the alleged perpetrator is a high level administrator. 

Unfortunately, the consequence of such messages to women in academic institutions is clear.  In an Op Ed for The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley professor Ellen Simm perfectly states what happens when universities fail to properly address sexual harassment: victims will not report the problem. Not one student who complained to [her] about an incident of sexual harassment has ever been willing to file a formal complaint.” And when there are no complaints, perpetrators of sexual harassment are likely to continue to engage in such conduct in the future with total impunity.  Already sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents have a tendency to go unreported. In fact, the Department of Justice found sexual assault to be the most unreported crime on college campuses.   

So how can universities prevent the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women on their campuses when recent events have shown that they refuse to or cannot properly handle sexual harassment complaints? 

Fortunately for the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides them with another opportunity for justice when an academic institution fails to properly protect is students. Victims can directly file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Title IX bans sex discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funds. However, it can take a long time for victims to get to this point and can likely be a painful process. It shouldn't have to be this way.  Not in 2016.  


Ari Asher said...

Thanks for your post. This is such an important and relevant topic. I think it's a really positive step that the Obama administration has put its support behind ending sexual assaults on campuses. In an interesting twist, this crackdown has has led to an increase in lawsuits. There seems to be a trend where male students who have been expelled after sexually assaulting other students are bringing lawsuits against the universities alleging claims such as sex based discrimination under Title IX (i.e. they were treated unfairly during the course of the investigation/proceeding because they were male). It's unfathomable to me that these cases could be winning -- but they are. I wonder how this is affecting the level of protection female students are receiving across U.S. college campuses.

Courtney Hatchett said...

My favorite outcome of the new trend of respondents suing schools for due process violations:

This woman, Hanna Stotland, is an admissions consultant that helps students get into new colleges after they are dismissed from an institution for violating the school's code of conduct. Specifically, Stotland helps young men accused of rape get into new colleges. As she sees it, “God forbid, if one of my clients committed rape, who needs a liberal arts education more than that person?”

Everyone likes to be so concerned with the due process rights of these students in academic disciplinary hearings, as if they were criminal defendants, but I think it's silly to look past the facts. Most of these respondents are well-educated, well-off, white fraternity boys whose families are able to pay for them to not only hire a private attorney to sue the school, but then hire a private admissions consultant to get them into another fancy school.

Jenna said...

I always wonder about the conversation that happens to decide on the "punishment" of slightly docking a sexual harassers pay or deciding to issue a light warning. In my mind I always picture this discussion taking place in a secret room where a group of rich, old, white men (dressed like they are from the 1920's) attempt to figure out the least amount of punishment they can give a professor or dean while twirling their mustaches and drinking scotch. Obviously, this is not what is occurring and that to me is what is truly scary. These decisions are being made by individuals who have supposedly dedicated their lives to furthering the lives and educations of the young adults at their institutions. They are also fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters and friends. How can these (presumably) normal individuals look at this behavior being perpetrated by those in powerful positions against their subordinates and give such lame and inadequate punishments for such behavior and yet expect such harassment to not continue?