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Prof Risks Pay to Avoid Harassment Training

November 7, 2008

Alexander McPherson is facing a deadline next week. The tenured professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of California at Irvine has until November 12 to complete a training program on sexual harassment. He's never been accused of sexual harassment, but he is among the 3,522 faculty members and other employees at the university who have supervisory responsibilities and are therefore covered by a 2004 state law mandating the training.

Already, McPherson has been stripped of the supervision of workers in his lab -- a program that has brought in millions in federal research grants. And he's been warned by deans and others that if he doesn't change his mind in a week, the university will stop paying him his salary of $148,000 a year. McPherson won't budge.

"This is a violation of my principles," he said. "I am offended that the university comes to me and says you need to take sexual harassment training. There is no more reason that I need to take sex harassment training than I need to take training on avoiding grand theft auto or murder or any other crime. The state is imposing this based on politics and that can't be allowed."

He added that requiring people to take harassment training suggests that they may be responsible in some way for harassing people. If the university or the state were to require specific departments with a demonstrated problem with harassment to go through training, that would be different, McPherson said.

Instead of going through the training, he is now trying to draw attention to the requirement and why he believes it is unjust. He started by talking to his local newspaper, The Orange County Register, and releasing to it various e-mail messages to and from university officials. And he agreed to discuss the situation with Inside Higher Ed Thursday. He noted that he provided the Register with a written release authorizing the university to share his personnel file directly with the reporter to verify that he'd never been accused of harassment, but that the university declined to turn over the files for review.

The training can take place in person or online, and McPherson said he has been told by colleagues that they complied with the online training by logging into a Web page, leaving it there for three hours, and then giving random answers to questions. But McPherson said his principles do not allow him to proceed in that way.

In one e-mail exchange with a dean, McPherson writes of the requirement: "I have never heard the university advance a reasonable and convincing explanation. I don't seem to be getting one now either. The answer appears to be simply, 'Look, this is the law -- now do it or else.' The fact that this is being required of everyone makes it no less onerous, as in the end, it is being required of each of us as an individual. I ask what is next? A loyalty pledge, racial sensitivity training, free speech filtering.... I would cheerfully go to jail in protest, as an act of civil disobedience. I am offended, however, that the university so poorly understands its priorities and confuses its duties that it threatens to interfere with the classes and with the students I teach, and to whom I have a moral obligation as their professor."

McPherson said he has already been told that he doesn't have full authority over his classes and that others will make final decisions about students in the courses he is teaching. It is not clear, he said, what the university intends to do about his federal grants if he is suspended.

The e-mail in which he volunteered to go to jail resulted in a response indicating that "the next step is not jail, but leave without pay."

Cathy Lawhon, a spokeswoman for Irvine, said she could not comment on McPherson's dispute with the university and that she had not even read relevant files about it. But she said that 97 percent of those covered by the law have gone through the required harassment training. Further, she said that she believed McPherson was the only person actively resisting the program.

She did say that the training serves a purpose even if someone isn't engaged in inappropriate behavior. "If as a supervisor, something is happening in the work place, something I saw among people I supervised, I would be trained to recognize it."

McPherson said that he certainly agrees that there is sexual harassment in the world, and that it's illegal and wrong, but he disputed the idea that professors need formal training. He noted that the university regularly distributes information about the topic. "The university has done a magnificent job of keeping me very well informed of all the rules and regulations regarding that particular problem," he said.

 

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