Are You A Member Of the Sexual Harassment Police? You Are Now.

By

Leonard Zwelling

According to reports I have received, there is a new policy at MD Anderson concerning allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. It is now cause for dismissal if anyone on the faculty or staff is aware of an incident of such offenses and chooses not to report them. Let’s run a scenario.

Four people have gathered in a conference room around a small table–the department chairman, one of his new female post-docs, and two associate professors in the department, one male and one female. Everyone is standing around waiting for the chair to get the meeting started when the chairmen slips behind his post-doc and gently pats her on the bottom.

“Please don’t do that, sir.”

“I was just playing around. Let’s all sit down.”

The research meeting begins and the chair thinks nothing of the incident. The post-doc is offended but due to her dependence on the chair for letters of recommendation and her future in research, not to mention the innate power differential, she says nothing. The male associate professor is relatively oblivious and does nothing. The female associate professor is alarmed. She herself had felt harassed by the chair on prior occasions and she has had enough. She reports the incident to the Provost who puts together an ad hoc committee to look into the incident. The committee reports out its findings: the chairman was inappropriate and he must take remedial courses in sexual sensitivity. The post-doc finds her funding gone six months later and is looking for a new position. The female associate professor is persona non grata in the department, out of favor with the reprimanded chair, and is looking for work at a new institution. The male associate professor is fired for not having reported the incident.

Could any of this happen to you?

You bet.

I understand the concept of being one’s brother’s keeper and for everyone looking out for everyone else. I am also aware that rules like this one of mandatory reporting not only violate one’s First Amendment rights to keep quiet, but can be used as a cudgel against people who have done nothing but not get along with someone else and the rule can be used for false allegations which would put the person accused in a terrible position from which he or she might not recover his or her reputation.

It is one thing to encourage people to report dangerous or offensive behavior when they see it. It is quite another to create a police state like East Germany where everyone is reporting on everyone else and fear runs through the organization.

Encouraging sexual, racial and gender sensitivity is a good thing. My guess is that HR plays an active role in educating faculty and staff on doing just that, but as someone who has been on the receiving end of bullying from powerful people simply for doing my job, I can also be quite alarmed by this latest turn. Let’s not fire people for being afraid, unaware, or unwilling to turn in a fellow faculty or staff member. Combating sexual misconduct is one thing. Abridging the rights of everyone to carry on with his or her life is quite another. This reminds me of the days of the honor code on Duke campus where you were to turn in anyone who might be cheating. Give me a break. If people choose to remain silent, that ought to be respected even if it is not the most admirable of traits. People have the right to be left alone and not be drafted into the sexual harassment police. Don’t you agree?

This is a dangerous precipice of a slippery slope that could weaponize allegations of sexual harassment. I suggest that the rules mandate that only the person harassed has the obligation to make the report, not by-standers and that no one can be fired for being silent. Silence will not solve the problem of sexual harassment but firing people for not reporting what someone else thought they should have seen is ridiculous.

When I was the Research Integrity Officer, I would not start an inquiry into an allegation of research misconduct unless the accuser came to my office and made his or her claims face-to-face. No email. No phone calls. No anonymous tips. If you are going to make someone else’s life a living hell, you had better be willing to own it.

The same ought to be true here. If the harassed wishes to report harassment, that’s one thing. If observers who may or may not have seen or heard anything are forced to make the allegation, or be fired, that’s too much.

Leonard Zwelling