Syllabus as Harassment

Can a syllabus be a form of sexual harassment? And should a professor know when he's being investigated for his extra-credit policy, use of triangles and declaring that his class is not a "safe space"?

October 14, 2016
 
David Seidemann

Triangles on his syllabus and an awkwardly worded plea for students to engage in extra credit -- that's what a professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York says raised sexual harassment concerns with his administration. The college denies that it formally investigated the professor for violations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit gender discrimination in education, but acknowledges that officials reviewed his syllabus.

And the professor was asked to change his syllabus, which was at some point examined by a college lawyer without his knowledge. Eventually, the professor was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he remains concerned about the implications what he calls a "shadow" inquiry.

"Taking an extra-credit part of my syllabus and interpreting it as some kind of Title IX issue strikes me as bizarre -- that just doesn't seem rational," David Seidemann, professor of geology at Brooklyn, said in an interview.

To some, the incident will likely read as no harm, no foul -- after all, Seidemann's tenured job was never on the line. Others, though, are likely to see the case as further evidence of a hazy line between academic freedom and campus interpretations of Title IX. That's already a concern for groups such as the American Association of University Professors, which published a report on the matter earlier this year.

"I might have to allow for the possibility that I had I not had tenure, they could have gotten rid of me," Seidemann said. "In any case, your reputation means a lot and I hate to think it would have been damaged by some document that existed in some office."

Earlier this fall, Seidemann shared a syllabus with students in his class about geology in the modern world. Because the course includes discussions of climate change and other potentially controversial topics, he said, the syllabus noted that the classroom was not a "safe space" when it came to speech. The idea was to encourage debate and free inquiry, he said. He included triangles -- what he often uses as quotation marks or scare quotes -- around the term.

Another syllabus section said that "deportment, effort, etc." made up 10 percent of one's grade, and would be applied "only to select students when appropriate." Seidemann says the point was to make clear that extra credit was available to hardworking students, without giving away exactly how to get it; ultimately he wanted intrinsically motivated students to attend office hours, not just those seeking extra points.

According to emails provided to Inside Higher Ed, Seidemann's department chair met with him soon after the start of the semester to discuss changing his syllabus. The chair, Jennifer Cherrier, wrote in a later email that she'd been contacted about Seidemann by Patricio Jimenez, the college's Title IX coordinator.

The professors' initial conversation was in person, but Seidemann soon "memorialized" it in an email to Cherrier because he found the content to be extraordinary. Alerted to the syllabus by a student, the college apparently had taken issue with Seidemann's note that "effort" credit would only be given to some students, because it left room for sexual harassment. It's unclear exactly how.

The syllabus's statement that the classroom was an "unsafe space for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree: all constitutionally protected speech is welcome," also portrayed an antigay bias, particularly the triangles, Seidemann said he was told. He guessed that the triangle scare quotes were -- to someone -- reminiscent of triangles Nazis forced some gay men to wear. (Some gay men have since reclaimed the brand, wearing pink triangles by choice.)

The college had somehow already cleared Seidemann of the second concern or charge, according to his recollection of his conversation with his chair, but remained concerned about the extra credit.

"Charges involving sexual harassment and antigay bias are serious matters that mandate thorough investigation," Seidemann wrote to Cherrier. "But because the charges are so serious, they also mandate due process to the accused. That this investigation was concluded, and a course of action recommended, without my knowledge of any aspect of it, or without an opportunity for input, fails to meet that standard."

Seidemann contacted Jimenez, the Title IX coordinator, who repeatedly asked him to meet in person. But the professor declined, saying he wanted everything to be documented via email. About two weeks after Seidemann's initial conversation with Cherrier, Jimenez said the case on his syllabus was closed, "as of this writing."

Jason Carey, a spokesperson for Brooklyn, said that Seidemann was never investigated by the Title IX office. Yet somehow, he said that Seidemann's syllabus was examined by university counsel, which determined that he was not guilty of violations of Title IX.

Seidemann has repeatedly asked the college for information about the original complaint and any investigation, and has received none. Communication about Title IX complaints can be tricky, because victims' advocates say everything possible should be done to protect the complainant against possible retribution. Yet faculty advocates, including the AAUP, say that professors have a right to know about complaints against them. The association's recommended policies and procedures for sexual harassment claims, for example, say that a grievance officer "should inform the alleged offender of the allegation and of the identity of the complainant" and that a "written statement of the complaint should be given to both parties." (AAUP also says that "every effort should be made to protect the complainant from retaliatory action by those named in the complaint.")

Seidemann's faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, had no immediate comment.

Read more by

Back to Top