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Scrutiny on Sexual Harassment

February 14, 2005

A pair of sexual harassment claims against professors at Western Oregon University has drawn the attention of the state's top official.

Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski last week asked the acting chancellor of Oregon's university system to direct presidents of the state's seven public institutions to review their policies on sexual harassment and relationships between faculty members and students, gauge their effectiveness, and recommend necessary changes to them. The governor said in his letter that he hoped the presidents' responses would provide a basis for the Oregon State Board of Higher Education to consider possible changes in statewide policies at a meeting in June.

"I know you join me in my commitment in the safety of our students, and in ensuring that our faculty and staff continue to create an environment that fosters academic
excellence," Kulongoski wrote to George Pernsteiner, the acting chancellor. 

A spokeswoman for Pernsteiner said the chancellor had responded to the governor's request in the "affirmative" and was sending letters to the campus presidents as requested. 

Kulongoski's letter said only that he was writing "in light of recent events." But aides to the governor told reporters that he was concerned by a highly publicized out-of-court settlement this month of a lawsuit brought by a former graduate student against a professor at Western Oregon University. The state agreed to pay $65,000 to settle the $12.6 million suit, which accused the professor of initiating physical contact and asking the former student questions of a sexual nature. The professor disputed the charges, although he admitted to reporters that he had had a relationship with the student.

In an interview with the Salem Statesman-Journal, Western Oregon's president, Philip W. Conn, called that relationship "reprehensible" and "unacceptable." Western Oregon settled another lawsuit involving a professor-student relationship in 2001, for $110,000.

At that time, the university's policy on faculty-student relationships, as suggested in its faculty handbook for 1998-2000, did not prohibit or even heavily discourage them. "As a teacher, the professor recognizes the special role she or he plays as intellectual guide and mentor and the need to represent that which is best in the academic world to each student," the handbook said.

"The professor is especially concerned that evaluation of students and their accomplishments reflect their true merit, that the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student be respected, that the academic freedom of the students be protected, and that there will be no exploitation of students for private advantage."

Western Oregon adopted a much more restrictive policy last month. It says that romantic or sexual relationships between employees and students raise "serious ethical concerns" and warns employees "against the possible costs of participating in even an apparently consenting relationship." It declares such relationships to be "unethical if the employee has any professional responsibility for the student."

 

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