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? 


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.