Forum: Policy offers best protections for all

In January 2001, President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg circulated a sexual harassment policy, which he characterized as “a fair, balanced and reasoned approach that complies with current law.” I agree; this policy is one the University community should support.

The policy prohibits sexual harassment by any member of the University community and offers both an informal and a formal process to resolve incidents.

The University formulated its definition from statements of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Education. In keeping with the University’s commitment to free academic exchange, the policy states explicitly: “Nothing in this policy limits academic freedom … which is a preeminent value of the University … education or debate on issues of public concern shall not be construed as sexual harassment.”

Although a considerable amount of care went into drafting this policy by an ad hoc committee appointed jointly by the Faculty Senate and administration, some members of the Faculty Senate – many of them Law School faculty – nevertheless raised objections to an earlier draft at Senate meetings in spring 2000. At the foundation of the complaints was the view that any harassment policy in the classroom would infringe on academic freedom. Excluding classroom conduct, however, would violate federal law, which requires the University to act against sex discrimination including harassment wherever it takes place.

Additional objections centered on the process, including requests that it take on the characteristics of a court proceeding. Such a change would negate the advantages of informal resolutions that do not create records that follow an accused throughout his or her career. Once the process becomes formal, hearings do offer substantial protections including the right to have legal representation. Both parties can call witnesses, although witnesses cannot be compelled to testify since the University has no power to compel witnesses to testify.

Some faculty also objected to the involvement of students in complaints brought by students alleging misconduct by faculty. By a small margin, the Faculty Senate recommended panels of four faculty members and one student. GW rightly rejected this proposal.

As it stands now, formal complaints will be heard by panels consisting of two members of the complainant’s group (e.g., students), two members of the respondent’s group (e.g., faculty), and a fifth member representing the third group (e.g., staff). Such a panel incorporates a standard practice in legal procedure: juries consisting of members representing the whole community.

According to the courts, sexual harassment creating a hostile environment must be “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.” Faculty members retain the protection of the Faculty Code. To the contrary, the faculty should stand for the principle that University policies should protect all members of the community.

For several years, the University has considered harassment complaints quickly and successfully under an interim policy. This new policy, refined after consultation with faculty, appropriate government officials and outside counsel, protects all members of the GW community from sexual harassment without intruding on the robust exchange that faculty and students value. We should endorse it.

-The writer is associate professor of history and women’s studies.

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