Friday, May 13, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Reporting Third Party Harassment

A new correspondent writes:

A friend of mine works at a different college than me. She is not tenured (she is in a position that is not currently tenure-track, but may turn into one). Students have told her that the chair of her dept. has made them uncomfortable on multiple occasions--inappropriate physical contact, pressuring to sign up for his courses. My friend has tried to bring this up to the dean but apparently the dean is protective of him and refuses to do anything about it. I think students have also approached the dean about the situation.

I am appalled at this. While my friend is thinking about approaching the college president, the whole situation is quite difficult because of her status. She works in an atmosphere of hostility and repression, which is a shame because she is incredibly smart and a great, challenging teacher.

Is there anything I can do? Could I write to the president myself (perhaps anonymously) as someone who interested as a community member (we live in the same region) and fellow faculty in the same area? Would I be taken seriously if I did so?

You’re in an awkward position, as is your friend. You need to play this carefully.

I wouldn't advise going in yourself, since everything you'd have to report is hearsay. ("I heard from a friend that other people told her about this third person who...") Even if they believed you, they couldn't act on it.

Even your friend's testimony would be considered hearsay, since it's based on what her students told her.

The students are the ones who would have credibility, since they were direct witnesses. If your friend believes strongly that the students are telling the truth and that the conduct they describe is over the line, she should encourage the students to go to Human Resources and fill out written complaints. (Since sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination, it would go through HR, rather than the Dean of Students.) At that point, the college would have something concrete it could actually use. It would also keep your hands clean.

Of course, the students might not want to complain, and/or the college might not consider the charges either actionable or worth it. But that's out of your control. What you absolutely do NOT want to do is to go in with hearsay accusations. They're easily dismissed, and they can lead to an impression of a vendetta.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a better way?

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