Faculty Senate votes on sexual harrassment policy

The Faculty Senate will send its final verdict Friday on a sexual harassment policy drafted by the University when it votes to pass or reject a resolution claiming the policy limits classroom speech and strips professors of basic legal rights.

The resolution up for vote urges the Senate to reject the proposed policy, which the University drafted in January. Members of the Committee on Professional Ethics and Academic Freedom, a standing committee of the Faculty Senate, sponsored the resolution.

If the Faculty Senate votes in favor of the resolution, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg will review it in June and send his response to the Senate, Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman wrote in an e-mail.

If the Senate rejects the resolution, the proposed policy, remaining unchanged, will return to Trachtenberg for his final approval. Trachtenberg is prepared to adopt the policy as it is written, according to an e-mail he sent professors in January.

GW currently has an interim sexual harassment policy that was adopted in April 1999 and has never received faculty approval. The Faculty Senate formed an ad-hoc committee in 1998 to draft a permanent policy. The Senate rejected recommendations of the committee in May 2000, asking for fewer classroom speech restrictions and less student input in the process.

Professors debated the ratio of students and professors that will be allowed on panel that hears sexual harassment cases, settling on a panel with four faculty members and one student when a faculty member is accused. This vote went against recommendations of the ad-hoc committee, which favored a panel with two faculty members, two students and one staff member.

Trachtenberg rejected the Senate’s conclusion and included the 2-2-1 panel in his policy, which the Senate will review this week.

No official action has been taken against any faculty members since the adoption of the interim policy, but one faculty member is under investigation for statements made in a classroom, law professor John Banzhaf III said.

The Office of Academic Affairs accepted comments from students, staff and faculty members on the policy until March 15. During that time the office received 15 e-mails, all supporting the proposed policy, Lehman wrote.

An outside counsel reviewed the policy before Trachtenberg sent it to the Senate in January. A five-person committee comprised of a GW lawyer, a member of the outside counsel’s staff and three GW Law School professors also reviewed the policy in January and made changes, Lehman said.

The Senate resolution up for vote Friday states that the proposed sexual harassment policy strips professors of fundamental rights by excluding:

the right of the accused to a copy of the complaint and identity of the complainant
the right to confront and question persons giving adverse information
the right to an independent and impartial decision-maker
the right to compel witnesses, including the complainant, to provide information

Under the proposed policy, individuals who feel they have been sexually harassed can first try to come to an informal resolution. If the individual filing the complaint is unsatisfied with the informal complaint process, they can file a formal complaint by submitting a written explanation of the incident. A special panel would then examine the complaint and try to reach a decision within 45 business days.

“The objection of the PEAF committee appears to be to the informal process, in which discussions take place privately rather than a public hearing,” professor Cynthia Harrison wrote in an e-mail.

The current proposal was considered “deeply flawed” unanimously in an informal vote by 22 members of the law school faculty, Banzhaf said. He said the law school would reject the proposed policy and create its own if GW adopts it.

“The law school opting out of the sexual harassment policy would be like the medical school opting out of a vaccination program proposed by the University,” Banzhaf said.

Banzhaf said he believes the proposed policy is too ambiguous and will hurt academic freedom.

“A sexual harassment policy which says that the University respects academic freedom, but which permits a secret investigation to be triggered by an anonymous complaint made without any notice to the faculty member . can chill academic freedom,” Banzhaf wrote in an e-mail.

Harrison said the proposed policy will not infringe on classroom speech.

“In order for classroom speech to constitute sexual harassment, it has to be `severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.’ Teachers have no right to treat students in such a manner, the University has an obligation to protect students against such treatment,” Harrison wrote.

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