If One Professor Gropes, Does Everyone Need Training?

Experts say Iowa president's move to require programs for all faculty and staff is an appropriate and strong response against harassment. Others see collective punishment.
August 15, 2008

That what Arthur H. Miller is accused of doing would constitute sexual harassment is, one would hope, obvious to anyone who works in higher education. The political science professor at the University of Iowa was arrested last week on bribery charges arising out of accusations by female students that he told them he would give them higher grades if they let him fondle their breasts. In one case, he is alleged to have grabbed and sucked on a student's breast and then sent her an e-mail telling her that she had earned an A+.

Miller hasn't commented on the accusations, although his wife has said he is innocent. Miller is on paid leave, pending a university investigation, but another move by the university raises the question of what sort of educational programs are necessary for a university to prevent harassment. Sally Mason, Iowa's president, announced on Tuesday that she plans to extend the university's sexual harassment training -- currently required only for those with supervisory roles -- to all professors and other employees.

Many experts on sexual harassment say that Mason's action is the right thing to do -- and would be even if the Miller case hadn't come along. Training everyone means many more people understand the laws and university policies, and will know how to be supportive of colleagues or students who may be being harassed, they say. Requiring all employees to get training shows that "our responsibility to our students should be first and foremost," and that harassment is a problem that is serious enough to warrant professors' attention, said Billie Wright Dziech, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of The Lecherous Professor and of Sexual Harassment in Higher Education: Reflections and New Perspectives.

But others question whether requiring all professors to go through training is necessary or appropriate. "In the circumstances, many faculty would feel that they were being blamed for the actions of an individual, and that would be unfair," said Ernst Benjamin, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. "One would want to look into whether there is a climate problem or an individual problem," said Benjamin. When colleges require such training of everyone, he said, "it can discredit the whole business. People who are opposed to sexual harassment regulations have a field day and talk about overkill."

The Iowa training that has been provided to supervisors up to now (and which may be modified based on consultations with faculty leaders) has covered state and federal laws, university policies, definitions of harassment, and information on how to respond to complaints about harassment. Cases are presented for discussion and participants take a self-quiz to test their knowledge.

Michael W. O'Hara, president of the Faculty Senate at Iowa and a professor of psychology, said that he is hearing a range of reactions from colleagues about the expansion. "Many of the faculty are thinking: Why are we having such a dramatic response to one incident?" O'Hara said.

Personally, O'Hara said he wasn't bothered by the idea of training for everyone. "We have responsibility for our graduate students and for others on campus that we either supervise or know, and I don't see it as a bad idea for us to be educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment," he said. At the same time, O'Hara noted that because he works in a psychology department, he is used to mandatory training -- on such topics as research with human subjects -- "so I may have less sensitivity than some of my colleagues."

Should faculty members be offended by the suggestion that they should receive training on sexual harassment? Among leaders in human resources and those who advise colleges on their legal responsibilities, many said that while few colleges require everyone to undergo such training, they should do so -- and shouldn't wait for a professor to be facing charges.

Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, noted that harassment "can have a devastating impact on individuals" and that charges of harassment "have a significant impact on the work environment and the reputation of the institution." Training programs, "very clearly emphasize that harassment will not be tolerated." Further, he said that while "many employees think that harassment is a simple straightforward issue," it isn't, and there's plenty they don't know.

Kathy Hagedorn, a consultant who works with colleges on HR issues, said she would advise that all college employees receive information about sexual harassment. "The legal system has gotten very serious about the issue, and one of the few defenses can be that a university has educated its population on the subject and has adopted a 'zero tolerance' policy," she said.

Ann H. Franke, president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on how to minimize risks they may face, agreed that training everyone is smart policy. "It's ironic that educational institutions tend to do relatively little internal education," she said. "I think professional development for faculty often consists of sabbaticals and a few resources on teaching effectiveness and attending professional conferences"; it should also include meaningful discussion of topics like sexual harassment, she said.

To those who would say that they know what harassment is, and why they shouldn't engage in it, Franke said that part of training should reflect that "any faculty member could become the confidante of a student who has had a harassment problem," and that common sense alone doesn't prepare one for that role. She also noted that professors who would never themselves harass often fail to do anything about incidents they see. "Bystander intervention" is important, she said. "What do you do if you see something going on that shouldn't be going on? How do you speak up?"

If programs are poorly managed, Franke said, they can create problems. But she said a well structured program can be done in two and a half hours and in a way that promotes real discussion and "doesn't assume that everyone in the room is a harasser."

After all employees go through training, she said, colleges can expect an uptick in complaints, but that shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing. "People report things sooner, before they have escalated into more serious problems," she said.

Dziech, the author of The Lecherous Professor, also said that discussion of sexual harassment has been "sidelined," and that discussion has focused too much on verbal harassment, as if that's the only kind of bias that may exist. She said that while the kind of quid pro quo harassment alleged at Iowa has been "driven underground," it "has not gone away," and people need to be reminded of that. Further, she noted that in many cases where harassment incidents are publicized, it becomes clear that faculty colleagues "covered for one another" -- suggesting the need for widespread training.

As student and faculty mores change, she added, more training is needed. Undergraduates who arrive on campus having grown up in "hook-up culture" may be vulnerable in different ways than previous generations, she said.

Focusing on the Real Problem?

Despite these arguments, some at Iowa and elsewhere object to the idea that training should be required for everyone. At Iowa, a complicating factor is that the university is facing charges that it mishandled accusations that two football players sexually assaulted a student in 2007 -- and that this incident came only two years after the university faced criticism when a former basketball player was convicted for assaulting his then girlfriend. Privately, some faculty members at Iowa have said that if there is a pattern of some individuals not understanding their responsibilities not to harass or even assault women, those individuals are not faculty members. Why, these professors have asked, does the university seem slow to respond to the treatment of women by athletes, while rushing to require faculty members to receive harassment training?

Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, a group that has criticized required harassment training in many contexts, called Iowa's move this week "an overreaction" and said it was unfair to professors. "One case does not make a pattern," Wood said. "There is a history of harassment at Iowa, but it involves student-on-student harassment by athletes. So why in effect punish faculty members and employees when, if there is a problem, it lies in coddling out of control student athletes?"

Intruding on faculty time, he said, is "the easy thing to go after, rather than touch the precious athletes."

Wood said that "any instance of harassment" is wrong, and that anyone who did what Professor Miller is accused of should be punished. But he challenged the assumption that more education and training would have an impact.

He noted that the University of Iowa completed a major study of sexual harassment issues in 2006, and that its recommendations were accepted by the administration. As a result, a Web page with information about policies was enhanced, posters were printed, brochures were distributed and so forth. There isn't evidence, he said, that Iowa faculty members lack information about sexual harassment or why it is wrong.

"It's ludicrous to think that the faculty member who was arrested was unaware that it was morally offensive to offer higher grades to several of his students if he could grope them," Wood said. "I don't believe there is a single faculty member who is unaware of the university's sexual harassment policy. The fact that harassment took place did not happen because of the lack of awareness of the university's policies."


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