Sexual Harassment and Group Punishment

February 12, 2009

Sexual harassment has been and continues to be a real phenomenon. The evidence is clear. The destructive effects are also clear, sometimes for all the individual parties concerned. And the adverse effects are evident for the profession as a whole.

What is much less clear is what can be done to reduce, if not eliminate altogether this phenomenon. Some institutions have adopted mandatory training about sexual harassment for all department heads and/or for all faculty members. Last year, for example, the University of Iowa instituted such a requirement in the wake of a high profile sexual harassment case.

Such required training was at the heart of a dispute between a University of California at Irvine professor, Alexander McPherson, and his university. In response to Professor McPherson’s refusal to undergo the training, the university relieved him of supervision of the employees in his lab and threatened to withhold his salary. McPherson, who was never accused of harassment, indicated that he was offended by the requirement, that it was a violation of his principles, and that such training was called for only in the event that demonstrated problems had been found in a unit. In his words, “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.”

Writing as a scholar of higher education, and not as the new general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (a post I assumed January 1), I would offer three observations on this issue.

First is that there are other realms of activity in which faculty members must undergo required training, without any presumption of an offense having been committed. In research universities (where professors’ work routinely involves human subjects, though even there literary and some other scholars are not required to undergo such training), perhaps the most obvious example of this is the human subjects training surrounding research grants and activity. Prior to getting grants approved by the sponsored projects division of a university, an investigator must have undergone human subjects training. Although the training varies by university, there are common patterns nationally. Typically, for example, such training is online, and is not particularly rigorous, to put it mildly. Indeed, the format involves investigators taking an exam by reading some written passages and then answering questions about them. After each section or module the person finds out whether he or she missed too many questions in a section, and proceeds. If they have missed too many questions in a section they simply backtrack, get the same questions in a different order, and retake the quiz, until they pass. A widely used set of exams (which are specified to social/behavioral and biomedical research) are those offered by the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative, which over 830 institutions and facilities (including a very large number of research universities, and indeed including the University of California at Irvine) utilize. The modules for the CITI quiz typically include three to six questions.

For the most part, although faculty complain about the inconvenience and irrelevance of the training, I do not know of anyone who would suggest that such training should be required only of investigators found to have violated the rights of human subjects. The more important questions of process and principle surround the institutional review board activities that regulate the approval of an investigator’s proposal. Here, serious questions have been raised about compromising investigators’ academic freedom to engage in certain types of research and to research certain subject matter. But the controversy is not, for the most part, about the human subjects training per se. Indeed, I would venture to say that for colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences, among the most common comments and complaints about human subjects training are that it is ineffective, that it does little by way of actually protecting human subjects and seems to be geared more to protecting the institution. The same might be said with regard to sexual harassment training, or any other “public” program of “training” that a college or university requires of its employees, including faculty members.

This leads to my second observation about the issue of institutions requiring sexual harassment training for faculty. What purpose does it serve? As Professor McPherson says of the requirement, “I have never heard the university advance a reasonable and convincing explanation.” In fact, there is no evidence that such one-time training is effective in reducing the activity in questions. Here, I would agree with Professor McPherson’s questioning of the rigor and effectiveness of such training. Thus, he notes that some of his colleagues log in to the online training, wait for a period of time, and then give random answers to questions. He also notes the regular distribution of materials to employees providing information regarding the rules and regulations surrounding sexual harassment, rendering in his view the online training unnecessary.

Whatever the nature of the online training, and the behavior of the participants, there is ample reason to question the impact of a single experience on behavior. Perhaps there is even greater reason to questions the behavioral impact of such an intervention when it is “virtual.” However, such formal training may nevertheless serve an important function for the organization, by providing legal and external “cover” for the college or university in question.

Here, it is worth noting that in 1995 the AAUP adopted a report (revised from a 1984 report that had been adopted) on this matter (“Sexual Harassment: Suggested Policy and Procedures for Handling Complaints”) that noted the incentive for institutions to adopt not only policies but also educational programs due to some Supreme Court decisions. As a scholar in the field of higher education, and as one who studies and writes about higher education organizations, I would go a step further. There is a large body of organizational research, known as institutional theory, which suggests that one of the main reasons for the emergence in organizations of such formal structures as required training programs is that it is a response to external concerns about a domain of activity and an effort to maintain or (re)establish the organization’s legitimacy in the eyes of the external world.

This need not be a cynical view, suggesting that neither institutional leaders nor the professionals engaged in developing and delivering formal training programs (whether in sexual harassment, human subjects, or in the area of teaching) are actually committed to affecting and improving behavior in the college or university. Rather, it is a view about the predominant and ultimate effects of such formal structures. It is much easier to publicly establish an office or an educational program to address some area of concern (such as sexual harassment) than it is to affect the private behaviors of professionals. Thus, when confronted with a potential challenge to an institution’s external legitimacy, because it is seen as violating some prevailing norms in the broader society, it makes sense for a president to support the creation of public, yet “virtual” structures such as online training modules in sexual harassment. It makes sense because at the very least it is a way of publicly demonstrating that the organization is trying to do something to prevent behavior that violates society’s norms and/or laws.

Given the above, and given the premise that sexual harassment has been and continues to be a phenomenon that we need to address and reduce, if not eliminate, how can such change be effected?

This question leads to my third observation, which is that the change we seek requires an exercise of political will and an excising of cultural ills. With regard to the former, the policies and laws are in place to enable supervisors to act fairly yet aggressively when sexual harassment takes place. If we provide and cultivate the mechanisms to enable the reporting of what research suggests is an underreported behavior, then the structures are in place if academic (and other) administrators at various levels will systematically and appropriately be receptive to reports of harassment, forcefully pursue those cases, and perhaps most important of all, be evaluated by their own supervisors according to whether they do so. With regard to the excising of cultural ills, we must all take responsibility to embed in our daily lives a pattern of interaction that clarifies, monitors, and maintains boundaries of appropriate behavior. Among the cultural ills we need to address head on is not only sexual harassment (and a range of hostile and chilly climate issues), but also the academic cultural norm of not confronting the bad behavior of peers. An argument could be made that as a profession academics are much better at disputing colleagues’ scholarly positions and ideas than we are at sanctioning the behaviors of peers.

Deeply embedded in the consciousness of most academics in the U.S. is a sense of the profound value of and right to due process involving review by one’s faculty peers, and to academic freedom. Both of these are not only found in the AAUP report noted above (as well as in its 1994 report on “Due Process in Sexual Harassment Complaints”), they arguably can be traced to the AAUP’s important work over the past century to establish and defend these rights. The association’s report on sexual harassment identifies harassment (based on gender, or on race/ethnicity, or other considerations, to which I would add sexual orientation) as being unethical and as “inconsistent with the maintenance of academic freedom on campus.” It is our responsibility as a profession, to embed in our consciousness and in our daily practice a vigorous commitment to and promotion of a profession free from sexual (and other forms of) harassment. Fulfilling that responsibility (which runs much deeper than public but relatively superficial, virtual steps like requiring everyone to undergo training) will better enable us as a profession to benefit and learn from increasingly diverse populations of colleagues and students, thereby more fully realizing our potential as an academy and as a society.


Gary Rhoades is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.


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