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Sexes: Fair Harvard, Are You Fair?

4 minute read

Harassment charges leave the Crimson crimson

It was a classic case of misused professorial power. Soon after winning a spot on the Harvard faculty in 1981, a woman Ph.D. became the target of amorous advances by her committee chairman. She claims that he invited her to his home when his wife and children were away and, at a party for Latin American dignitaries, introduced her as “my slave.” The woman consulted the dean’s office but was repeatedly discouraged from making a formal complaint.

The advances continued, accompanied by what the woman claims were veiled threats to jeopardize her career. She eventually complained to Henry Rosovsky, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, who found that the case had merit. Rosovsky wrote her a letter stating, “The repeated sexual advances and certain other deprecating actions constituted a serious abuse of authority.” In an August out-of-court settlement, Harvard stripped Professor Jorge Dominguez of his committee powers but did not suspend him. The woman’s contract was extended, although she is now doing research in Latin America.

The case may be extreme, but it is not an isolated one. Last month Harvard released a comprehensive survey on sexual harassment, based on questionnaires sent to all arts-and-sciences faculty members, 1,000 graduate students and 2,000 undergraduates, both male and female. Some 34% of female undergraduates (and a smattering of males), 41% of female graduate students and 49% of nontenured women faculty reported experiencing some form of harassment, ranging from verbal abuse to assault.* The occurrences and the concern they raised tended to increase as women had higher seniority and tenure at stake. The 164-page report concluded, “Clearly the Harvard experience is different for men and women. Women experience an atmosphere that is more hostile and threatening.”

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Certain acts, such as unwanted sexual invitations, unwelcome physical contact or pressure for dates, are obvious. Men tend to define harassment almost solely in terms of sex. But the survey showed that only 2% of untenured women and 1% of women graduate students reported overt sexual abuse, such as assaults or attempted rape. Women, however, considered as serious harassment demeaning remarks and behavior designed to make them feel uncomfortable.

Although 15% of Harvard’s untenured women and 9% of female undergraduates reported that they had mentioned problems to a university official, only a few made formal complaints because they feared reprisals. “I think men can often band together when one of them is threatened,” wrote one woman graduate student in answer to the questionnaire. “The uniquely powerful position they hold over people just starting careers makes me hesitant about ever reporting sexual harassment.” Says Holly Ladd, a lawyer for one woman complainant: “What we have here is gender harassment. We’re not necessarily talking about sex in the sense of one person’s trying to be physical with another. We are talking about an unwillingness on Harvard’s part to do anything about a hostile and intimidating atmosphere for women.”

Harassment, of course, is not confined to Harvard Yard. Bernice Sandier of the Association of American Colleges estimates that about 20% of all female college students are victims of some sort of sexual harassment. The president of Hillsborough Community College in Florida, accused by several female employees of making sexual advances, took a leave of absence last year after the state ethics commission recommended that he be suspended without pay for 90 days. He has since resigned. A dean at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire resigned in 1981 after a female employee made complaints to the police.

Although Dean Rosovsky admitted that the survey’s findings “do not come as a great surprise,” the university has not yet decided how to combat the harassment. It is hard to establish rules governing complex male-female relationships. At Yale, which has had a systematic grievance procedure since 1979, Associate Dean Judith Brandenburg warns: “We must be aware of subtle, subjective issues that are open to interpretation. There is a gray area that exists.” Mary Rowe, special assistant to the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advises a complainant to write a letter to the offender that lays out the facts, states the damages and proposes a solution. Harvard Students Christina Spaulding and Joseph DiNunzio, who helped compose and tabulate the Harvard questionnaire, believe that the university should at least appoint one disinterested authority to monitor complaints and try to prevent reprisals. Declares Harvard Senior Michael Adams: “If a teacher is found guilty of sexual harassment, potential students should be warned.”

* Harvard was crimson last week over another issue: it agreed to repay $4.6 million to the Federal Government, settling a five-year investigation into the way the university kept records of research grants to the schools of public health and medicine.

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