For three years, GW’s Faculty Senate and the University administration have argued about a sexual harassment policy governing employee conduct – including the way faculty members behave toward students. Now, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has announced he will make the interim policy now in effect the permanent rule governing sexual harassment. Faculty members complain the interim policy does not protect their rights and is unfair. But those same professors rejected a revised proposal from the administration in April, a proposal that includes many of the provisions the faculty sought to include. Trachtenberg and the faculty should work together to institute the April revision and make alterations later.
The process of creating a comprehensive sexual harassment policy began in 1998 and is still largely stalemated. Professors want to be notified of charges against them so they can mount an effective defense. This demand does not seem unreasonable, and the University should meet it. But administrators also want a complainant’s identity kept secret until an independent investigator can verify the harassment claim. Under the April proposal, once the claim is found to have merit, the complainant’s identity would be revealed to the accused. This, too, seems reasonable. Both of these provisions are not included in the interim policy, which serves as a just reason for replacing the current ad hoc system.
The major sticking point for professors in rejecting the revised proposal in April was the inability for the accused to call witnesses. As long as witness testimony is relevant, it should be heard, and any policy should include this point. But professors also want faculty members to dominate the panels that hear complaints, an unreasonable demand that would be intimidating and unfair to students or staff members making legitimate harassment complaints. Administrators are right to insist that any panel should have a balanced representation.
The April proposal was not offered lightly. Civil rights lawyers who specialize in sexual harassment issues reviewed the proposal and approved it, as did administrators and GW attorneys with experience in such matters. This version of the policy seems to have provisions that are far better than the current interim policy and should be adopted. Changes do need to be made, but instituting the April proposal now will provide more protection than the current system and would dramatically move the entire lumbering process several steps forward.