Friday, April 17, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: The Most Effective Faculty Protest

A savvy correspondent writes:

I'm writing because my large urban public university recently hired a high-profile person who, in a previous job, lost an equally high-profile civil lawsuit against him for sexual harassment, and I wanted to ask for your views on what kind of faculty response to what some of us consider a troubling hire would be most likely to get administrators' attention.

There is some thought of writing a kind of protest letter and making protesting noises to the press -- indeed, some have already been approached by the media for comment.

I was thinking that some kind of "constructive engagement" might be more productive: that is, we might draw more positive attention to the issue of sexual harassment and the need, for example, for effective awareness training and enforcement, if we invite the administrators and the new hire to attend an event on the subject or to issue some kind of supportive statement.  (Then, of course, if they refuse, we could, perhaps, decide to make hay of that.)  

I'd like to think that with the right approach, the administration could be prompted to meet us halfway, rather than giving a public slap in the face to anyone who thinks that sexual harassment really is a problem in the workplace and that this hire sends the wrong message to a university with a majority female student body.

Are either of these courses likely, in your view, to get us anywhere? 
 

Hmm.

My first thought is a lot depends on the specifics of the case.  Presumably, there's the "he was an idiot" level, which is remediable, and then there's the "he's a borderline felon," which isn't.
 
Assuming we're talking about something closer to the first than the second, you're probably right about constructive engagement.
 
I'd guess that the people who made the hiring decision were aware of the suit, and took it into consideration.  Attacking them now is likely to generate defensiveness and possibly a bunker mentality, neither of which is healthy.  (I don't know enough about the case to judge whether their judgment that his talents outweighed this incident is right or not, but it's sort of moot anyway.)  If you take the high road and treat it as a teachable moment for the institution, though, you could leverage residual guilt into some very helpful, very public discussions of sexism and sexual harassment generally.  On a more Machiavellian level, that would keep a cloud over this guy's head and allow you to come out smelling like a rose. 
 
There's also a question of letting the punishment fit the crime. By indicating a willingness to help the guy do a form of public penance and then move on, you might be able to harness whatever positive talents he has while effectively keeping his weaknesses in check. From this side of the desk, I can attest that anyone can get sued at any time for any reason, and any given case can go in any direction. If a single loss is an automatic career-killer, I'd expect to see some extremely heavy-handed behind the scenes pressure brought to make cases go away. If it's possible to do penance and move on, though, then a lot of that pressure subsides. At that point, the cost of a coverup is probably higher than the cost of revealing it.

I don't mean any of that to make light of sexual harassment. Depending on the specific case, what he did may be beyond what a new institution should be expected to tolerate. But a certain kind of forgiveness – the kind based on memory and publicity, rather than forgetting and secrecy – can actually elevate the climate overall.

And if your attempt to take the high road is spurned, then you have a much stronger case for going nuclear. Savvy administrators will understand that meeting you halfway is much cheaper and easier than going toe-to-toe in defending an idiot.

This approach may or may not work, of course; the administration might just circle the wagons and wait for everything to blow over. If it's stupid enough to do that, then you have the moral high ground for doing all manner of high-cost stuff. But you've got the chance here to turn a bitter conflict into a moment of real cultural change. I say take it.

Good luck!

I suspect opinions and emotions may run strong on this one, so I'll just ask my wise and worldly readers to assume good faith in their responses. Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
(Warning: two-part, large post ahead.)
Personally, without knowing the details of his offense, the entire concept seems kind of skeevy to me. I'm not convinced that all sexual harassment warrants a lifetime of punishment (as DD said, is this guy an idiot or a borderline felon? If he is the second, than protest away!) One could argue that loosing the civil suit (and, presumably, his previous job) would have "taught him his lesson" far more effectively than his new employer and coworkers ever could. I like the idea of a general symposium to increase awareness of sexual harassment, though if this person('s case) is as high profile as the OP suggests, everyone on campus might recognize the seminar for what it is: a public, pointed hint/warning. My question would be, what do you hope to accomplish? Are you honestly interested in preventing future problems, or do you just want to publicly shame him?

I have a followup question. When I was in grad school, my program had a professor (Dr. X) who was extremely inappropriate with students: everything from insinuations about the sexual behaviors of male students to comments like "you must be on your period, your breasts are larger than usual." Dr. X had a talent for ID-ing female students with low self esteem who claimed to not mind his behavior and thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Dr. X was, of course, fired when he made his typical comments to a student from another school who, correctly, filed a complaint against him. No official charges were made, he was allowed to resign.

Here is my question. I know Dr. X has engaged in this sort of behavior at several different universities, but no official complaints are ever filed: he is usually encouraged to seek employment elsewhere. His previous employers never give a heads-up to reference calls because of liability reasons. The result is the female (and male) students at each university are subjected to degrading treatment until he gets bad enough for someone else to report him. When I watched this happen, it REALLY pissed me off, but I had no idea of what to do. Do any of the wise members of the peanut gallery have some insight they could share?
 
Losing a lawsuit teaches this person a "lesson" better than anything you personally could do. Honestly I think if you go after everyone who had a questionable past you'll be really busy and not get very far. I think you have to let this one go - unless the lawsuit was very public, much of what you "know" could be false anyway.

As for Midwest English, the only thing you can do when inappropriate comments are made is to file a complaint yourself. The Dr. X is clearly creating a hostile environment and creating a paper trail with HR about this only does favors for the responsible folks in your administration. A case similar to this - where racial slurs were used commonly at a mechanic shop near my city resulted in a hostile environment suit that netted the worker about 100k. He repeatedly asked his coworkers to stop, documented that, and then won the suit when his employer failed to act to prevent the creation of a hostile environment. The downside of complaining is that you could be labeled a whiner with an axe to grind. But if you were witness to those comments and it made it hard for you to work / study, you have an actionable complaint.
 
http://thequad.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/16/a-teachable-moment-for-isiah-thomas/

Background: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/sports/basketball/03garden-cnd.html

Am I on the right track?
 
The analytical and critical thinking skills I honed comparing experimental data to theoretical predictions suggest there is a REMOTE possibility that today's short note in IHE, pointing to a story in the NY Times, might be about the situation in question.

If so, we aren't exactly talking about an academic position with a lot of student contact, and it looks to me like the constructive engagement option was chosen and resulted in positive press coverage portraying the faculty as rational educators with studen'ts interests at heart. You can't ask for much more than that.

However, I would take a minor exception to the statement quoted in the Times, that "this hire sends the wrong message about F.I.U.’s commitment to the success of all students, faculty, and staff, regardless of their gender". I would say this high-profile hire REALLY sends the message that FIU is committed to athletic success, period, as the best way to build the university's reputation as an academic institution. That is, they put more value on athletic success than on student success. That would be true regardless of what big name they hired, but goes double for this particular choice.
 
I worked for a university which was thrilled to get an academic star cheap because of his sexual harassment past. He wasn't so cheap after being paid off to just go! He was over the borderline into felon, though never charged. I don't doubt those who hired him had been duped about the extent of his behaviour (Girls dared not use the lift in that department's building.)

I am in favour of demanding a public program of gender equality training that this person knows is putting him on notice that such behaviour will not be tolerated -- always assuming that it won't. The university's women should know their rights and feel that they can freely exercise them without penalty.

If this is the sports case quoted in the comments, I am horrified. That sounds like the university sending the message that men can absolutely do what they like, gender equality is something we don't even have to bother to do lip-service over -- women simply do not matter.
 
Well let's think about this. First off, that great scholar, G. Oogle reveals only one recent news story that covers "high profile" "recent sexual harrasment" and "university."

That said, it is really no surprise that Florida International's athletic program makes questionable decisions.

Again, the great scholar mentioned above points to stories of academic failures and irregularities with the FIU athletic program, and of course the great FIU-Univ of Miami "Fight on the Field" still resounds. (take the time, if you don't remember, and watch the video The fightFIU (and perhaps one could argue, most Florida teams) has a serious problem with brushing under the carpet serious behavioral issues on and off the field of conflict.

So, in short--perhaps the problem for the faculty is this: why stay at a university that has consistently demonstrated that academics are not important, at least compared to athletics?
 
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