Professors reject harassment policy

The Faculty Senate voted unanimously Friday to reject the revised sexual harassment policy University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg presented at its last meeting April 13.

The Senate voted 15-0 to pass a resolution asking the University to redraft the policy, which has been the subject of debate between faculty and University officials for three years. Nine Senators were absent from the meeting, and one other declined to vote.

The resolution says the policy is “patently unfair to persons accused of sexual harassment” and “will chill academic expression.”

Trachtenberg and Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman will consider the resolution in June.

“It wasn’t much of a resolution, it’s more of an agreement to keep talking,” Trachtenberg said. “As long as we’re talking we’re not punching, that’s democracy.”

History professor Cynthia Harrison said she disagrees with the Senate’s continued rejection of proposed sexual harassment policies.

“I can’t imagine that after all the consultation that has already taken place that more consultation will form a better compromise,” said Harrison, who supports the revised policy.

Sen. Arthur Wilmarth (law school) said the policy creates an unfair process for faculty who may be charged with sexual harassment.

Under the policy GW keeps a file of all formal and informal sexual harassment complaints against faculty and staff members, and notifies the accused about new complaints without revealing the name of the accuser. Once GW begins the formal complaint process, the accused person receives all information about the complaint, including the complainant’s name.

Senate members said they are also concerned the revised policy would limit academic freedom in the classroom and force professors to change course content to avoid accusations.

“This policy sounds like Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany,” Wilmarth said. “Have we learned nothing from the horrors of the 20th century?”

Sen. Linda Gallo (SMHS) disputed claims that the policy lacks procedural protections that could lead to civil actions against the University.

“The concern expressed about the procedures is a smoke screen to try to set the procedures bar so high that students could not file sexual harassment complaints and a faculty member could not be found guilty,” Gallo said.

Gallo abstained from voting at Friday’s meeting.

Peter Pantaleo, a civil rights lawyer from Verner Liipfert, the law firm GW consulted to create the revised policy, said the policy was drafted with the intention to “adapt civil rights enforcement in the unique university setting.”

The Faculty Senate formed an ad-hoc committee in 1998 to draft a permanent policy. The Senate rejected recommendations of the committee last May, asking for fewer classroom speech restrictions and less student input in the process.

An outside counsel reviewed the policy in January before it went to a five-person committee, including members of the outside counsel. The Senate voted to postpone its decision on the policy after Trachtenberg presented a new version April 13.

GW’s debate over the policy has garnered attention from outside groups such as The Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties at universities. Thor Helverson, executive director of FIRE, said the organization became involved with GW’s sexual harassment controversy when “concerned faculty members” contacted him.

“We’ve been monitoring GW’s policy for several months and I’m delighted to see the resolution pass and GW’s faculty standing up for their rights,” Helverson said. “There is no statue in D.C. and no federal law that requires GW to eliminate due process.”

GW Law professor Michael Selmi said the proposed policy is appropriate and conforms to policies at other universities.

“I do think most of the objections are overblown,” Selmi wrote in an e-mail. “This policy provides considerable process, as much as for most issues involved in the faculty code.”

Sexual Harassment Policy Time Line

October 27, 1997 – Interim Policy submitted to Faculty Senate for review

December 11, 1998 – Senate appoints ad hoc committee to review policy

January 10, 2000 – Ad hoc committee recommends a revised policy

May 5, 2000 – Senate suggests changes to interim policy that give professors more protection

January 2001 – President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg sends revised draft all faculty members after seeking outside legal counsel

January 26, 2001 – Senators draft resolution to reject the revised draft

April 13, 2001 – Senate receives revised policy with more changes, postpones vote on resolution

April 27, 2001 – Faculty Senate passes resolution to reject policy

Source: Hatchet archives

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