Faculty Senate fails to vote on policy

The Faculty Senate failed to make a recommendation to the University on changes to its interim sexual harassment policy in the Senate’s final meeting of the year Friday.

The group voted on all but four of the proposed amendments to a resolution on the University’s interim sexual harassment policy but lost its quorum in the last hour of the meeting, which halted all voting. The Faculty Senate for the next academic year will discuss the resolution in its first meeting May 5.

Friday’s meeting concluded a yearlong process to evaluate and propose changes to the interim sexual harassment policy. Two debated issues throughout the process involved who would sit on the five-member judging panel during the formal process and to what degree sexual harassment could apply in the classroom setting.

Professor David Robinson said the current rules on sexual harassment function as speech code in the classroom and allow too much student influence in the process. Under the policy, two students, two faculty members and one staff member sit on the judging panel if a student accuses a faculty member of sexual harassment. The Senate’s resolution recommends a panel of four faculty members and one student.

The faculty should not be in the position to be judged by a student, Robinson said. Students may be biased toward other students in the process and may not understand how important material – which could be considered harassing – is to the class dialogue, he said.

Professor Cynthia Harrison said the view that faculty members should have greater representation on the panel is one that has massive support in the Senate but is largely unpopular in the entire faculty population.

I would argue completely that students can tell the difference between pedagogy and sexual harassment, Harrison said.

Harrison said some members of the Faculty Senate are more interested in creating a policy that protects them from punishment than creating one that is fair for the whole GW community.

The Senate is most interested in protecting themselves, she said.

Diane Bell, director of women’s studies, said she favors a panel with three faculty members and two students when a student accuses a faculty member of harassment. A panel with four faculty members and one student puts a student in a situation that some may see as intimidating, she said.

We’re talking about appearances . any committee can come up with a fair decision, said Edward Caress, executive associate dean of the Colmubian School of Arts and Sciences, who also supports a 3-2 panel.

An uneven panel of respondents and complainants not only creates the appearance of an unjust policy, but may also lead victims of sexual harassment to seek justice elsewhere, some professors said.

(If accused of sexual harassment), staff members would either proceed directly with the EEOC, bypassing the University process, or go to court after the University process ran its course, where the University proceeding would likely have no legal significance, Michael Selmi, a professor of law, wrote in a memo about the judging panel.

The resolution protects classroom speech that is reasonably designed or reasonably intended to contribute to academic inquiry, education or debate on issues of public concern, according to the resolution.

Some professors said the Senate did not make enough recommendations to protect the University from litigation for having a weak and unfair policy.

I write to respectfully suggest that the March 31st version of the proposed sexual harassment policy now before you might substantially increase the legal liability of all participants in the proceeding if it is not revised in accordance with generally accepted legal standards, Law Professor John Banzhaf wrote to the Senate.

The resolution, as it stands, provides more protection for faculty and staff members accused of sexual harassment than the interim policy. It also includes more measures to prevent litigation against the University and all parties involved in the process if a member of the GW community is accused of sexual harassment.

The resolution requires that the respondent, or person accused, receive a signed statement from the complainant or a written summary of what the complainant said during the consultation process. It also ensures that the respondent will be notified of the disposition of the informal process.

The resolution recommends that the five-member panel, which decides the outcome of the formal process, is comprised of four members representing the respondent’s side and one from the complainant’s side. If a student accuses a faculty or staff member of sexual harassment, then both parties would present their cases to a panel of four faculty members and one student, in accordance with the resolution.

While some of his concerns for the resolution were addressed in amendments passed Friday, Banzhaf said the resolution still leaves the University vulnerable to lawsuits. Banzhaf made the following recommendations: during the informal process: the University should not create a permanent file on a respondent without providing information about the accusation; the policy should also have a kick-out provision to weed out accusations of behavior that do not merit punishment; and a clause that forces faculty and staff members to testify.

I respectfully suggest that it would shock the conscience of any court to learn that a respondent could be found guilty and lose a job because he was unable to put on witnesses, which would support his defense, Banzhaf wrote.

Sarah Mulkern, GW’s sexual harassment coordinator and a member of the general counsel’s office, said sexual harassment cases are mostly resolved during the informal process. The current policy allows people to talk comfortably and resolve situations informally. Adding more regulations to the informal process would be the ultimate chilling effect on the process, she said.

There is no chilling effect like suing the complainant, Banzhaf said.

The Senate did not vote on an amendment that would change the required vote in the formal process from a simple majority (3-2) to four-fifths.

The consultation and informal processes addressed in the interim policy apply to GW students, faculty and staff. But the formal process only applies to faculty and staff who are accused of sexual harassment. If a student is accused and the case moves into the formal process, the rules set in the GW Guide of Student Rights and Responsibilities apply.

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