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.

I would suggest directing the aggrieved students toward an advocate, such a a local women's or rape crisis center. It takes some support to do this, she's in a position where providing that support isn't a good match for her, just saying to go to HR (after they've already failed to get help from her) isn't likely to happen.
What the friend can do to help the students is find out the name of the person in HR who is in charge of fielding such complaints. Because there will be someone. There's probably someone in her department as well, but the situation as described makes approaching that person awkward.

Had to do more than one online training on this stuff; for the life of me I can't remember what the title of the HR person is likely to be.

In any case, follow procedure; go through channels. In the long one that offers the best protection to everyone involved.
That should be "in the long RUN"

I'm astonished. Please tell me you're kidding. Is this the kind of lofty scat my hard earned dollars are being used to ponder? If this teacher is too afraid to lead from the front without tenure, then I'd strongly question the worthiness to hold such a high responsibility. I enjoy reading this blog but this post clearly illustrates why there is dwindling support for the institution of public education. Tell this teacher to quit being so preoccupied with saving her own precious neck and do the right thing.
To Adam: We had a case recently where I advocated for an instructor (non-tenure) who reported student concerns about another (tenure-track) faculty member. Without going into the nature of those concerns, let me say that they included things which, if true, should get anybody fired, no question.

What actually happened was that no one took the reports seriously because the instructor who made the reports was simply relaying student concerns. The word had to come from the students, themselves, or it would not be given any weight. When one student did come forward, she was told that the office which handles such complaints on our campus saw nothing worth investigating (and that's not surprising, because that's always the answer this office gives). That student then faced the daunting prospect of having to continue working with the professor she accused of harassing her - because there was no finding against him, she couldn't get another prof to step in to oversee her work. Naturally, other students were reluctant to come forward, after seeing this.

So: what happened? My member got into a pissing match with a tenure-track faculty person and with a department head who backed the tenure-track person. My member was suddenly "not renewed" for inexplicable reasons. We fought like hell for my member's job, and we lost because we couldn't definitively prove that this was the reason for our member's termination - despite the writing on the wall.

After losing their job, my member lost their home (foreclosure), their child left college under financial duress (used to get tuition benefits because the parent/our member worked there), and the member separated from their spouse in part due to the stress all of this caused them.

As for the alleged harasser, they suffered no adverse consequences from the university and will gain tenure this year.

Talk all you want about "doing the right thing." Reality is, it often doesn't matter in cases like this. Why is it surprising that people don't want to put their necks on the line for something that isn't going to make a difference at the end of the day?

It might be different, if it looked like coming forward would result in action being taken.
To Anonymous:

A pragmatic, and helpful, response to these types of student concerns would be to promptly direct them to an appropriate department (i.e. campus security), who are trained to take reports, and investigate these types of claims.

The instructor will have done the right thing by responding appropriately with useful guidance, and can return without delay to the important and necessary work of teaching, while staying above fray.

I do not understand all this anxiety and discussion over tenure v. non-tenure. It appears to be a side-show, when the focus should be toward guiding young people into the future.
There must be a local news show that prides itself on 'hard-hitting investigations' and such (here, it's the local FoxNews). Tell the student to email this station with their concerns, and to copy the president of the university on the email. That will get the administration's attention.
Yes Adam, by all means, send the student to the appropriate campus office. And then? What?

Maybe reality is different on your campus than elsewhere. Around here, the office in question is well known for not investigating anything. They are a CYA affair, not a serious investigatory or enforcement arm. It appears that the administration wants it that way, too, since they've done nothing to change this despite some rather public messes in this area. Sooner or later, things will change (probably as the result of a law suit), but in the meantime, sending students to that office is a step in the direction of futility. We still do it, but it doesn't resolve the problem and the reporter is often left to deal with the fall-out (legal or otherwise).

The real question in DD's post is whether the non-tenured faculty person should report directly to someone in authority, or whether s/he should simply encourage the students to report. The latter is easy but may not result in much action being taken and the student being hung out to dry, in the process. In the former, there are all kinds of power differentials that can (and do) play out in nasty ways. These are not inconsequential. Your comment is extremely naive. I wish I could say otherwise.
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If the member wants to accomplish anything useful, he or she should hire a lawyer on their own money to collect student stories and prepare them for presentation and/or lawsuit.

Nothing ever, ever, ever happens in a university to a high-status member unless there is a lawsuit involved. I did a lot of ombuds work for my local graduate student organization, and I can tell you with complete confidence that any advice which does not involve lawyers is false and harmful to those involved.
Let me rephrase: get a lawyer or drop this permanently. Any other option is both fooling yourself and hurting decent people.
If the campus department that is responsible for investigating complaints is ineffective then take it to a higher level. Locate an oversight agency at the State level and move forward. Private sector professionals don't have tenure protection, so this part of the diatribe is a non-issue for most.
Adam, let's put this into a context you'll understand. Contract or junior employee in a company is informed by an intern of some sexual harassment on the part of a manager.

Should contract employee or their friend, upon informing the manager's immediate superior and getting blown off, continue to push the intern's case or should they give the intern the contact info for HR and other possible venues?

If you advocate on someone's behalf in a toxic environment where redress is less important than protecting reputations? You know you'll be punished AND the aggrieved party won't have been helped either.

You're focusing on tenure status much more than effective redress. Punditus Maximus is sadly correct, here. The dean is not willing to engage. The adjunct can, at best, point out these alternative options but it is a rare student who has the resources to pursue such a case to any real resolution.

I appreciate your efforts to clarify the issue. However, if this type of unfettered harassment is going on in a publicly funded college, then there appears to be much broader issues at stake then what is described in the Dean's post. The only feasible solution appears to be someone reporting the matter, and an investigation by an outside agency.
That's a solution to the problem from the institution's perspective, not from the perspective of affected students.
Ditto with Punditus Maximus just said. It's hard enough to get victims of sexual harassment to report it. But when the situation goes from "please describe the incident on this form" to "please describe your experience multiple times to multiple audiences because we're investigating this department," cooperating witnesses tend to vanish. Yes, it sounds like this college should be investigated by a third party. But don't make THIS incident & THESE students the catalyst. Allow the students to file their complaint, and then try to prompt some kind of investigation as a separate action.
To the original questioner: Does your friend's university/college have an ombudsman? If so, that office can be really useful for students with a problem. In my experience, they tend to be less worried about CYA than HR departments, and they're more student-focused.
I have to recommend against the Ombuds office. It's good for piddly stuff, but actual sexual harassment is far beyond its capacity. It's much more successful in resolving conflicts between rough equals, and/or getting students who the college wants to help into good places.

Lawyer up or drop it. Don't waste the time and energy of the students complaining.
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