Sexual harassment in art school

A certain 50-ish lothario lured a student into his office and made clumsy advances. Should a complaint be lodged?

Published May 23, 2007 10:28AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I teach in an arts program at a small East Coast university. Last week, two of my graduate students confided to me about an incident of sexual harassment perpetrated by one of my colleagues: the husband, mortifyingly, of my department chair. As my students recount it, this male 50-something professor (cliché alert!) called one of his thesis advisees into his office for an unscheduled meeting. The student works full-time and lives 30 miles from campus but arranged to come and meet him at his office. Once she arrived, he shut the door and confessed that he didn't call her in to talk about her thesis. Long story short, he tried to kiss her; she turned and the unwanted smooch landed on the side of her head. She fled the scene. Lover boy followed up, predictably, with a series of penitent e-mails. Apparently this e-mail string has been copied and forwarded more often than the piano-playing cat on YouTube.

Not an unfamiliar tale, I know. Yet there are factors intensifying the story's ickiness. 1) The student in question is a vulnerable, troubled young woman, recovering from a trauma in her personal life. Don Juan's choice of target has all the earmarks of simple predation (most of the students in this program would have served him his balls on a platter). This deflected kiss represented not an eruption of physical desire in the context of a close, mature pedagogical relationship, but someone in a position of power preying on someone sure either to submit or run and hide. 2) Don Juan is, as I've said, the husband of the department chair. The thought of causing his wife, a kind woman, further public humiliation is painful to imagine. 3) At the university where D. Juan taught until a couple of years ago, he had an affair of some length with a student, causing his wife a kind of pain too exquisite for her to keep to herself. I'm sure she flushes with embarrassment remembering the months of tearful bean-spilling sessions with unwitting colleagues in the department office. Without even going into the flurry of other, similar rumors that have been flying around since D. Juan was hired, let's just say a pattern is emerging. One that's sure to continue, I fear, unless something or someone cramps his style.

Upon hearing of this latest incident, I felt sure I ought to go to the dean. I have tenure -- I'm safe, or so it seems, though friends disagree. This dean is friendly with the chair and her lothario husband and I barely know the man -- God knows what Pandora's box might be unleashed on my head. Plus, no one is eager to cause the jerk's wife further public humiliation. But there are the students to consider: young women who trust us, who come to us to create art from the deepest parts of their souls. It makes me sick, frankly, to think of the most vulnerable among them being preyed upon. I spoke to a colleague about the dilemma, and he thinks an anonymous letter should be sent to the dean, maybe requesting that he let our philandering colleague know that rumors, substantiated or not, are flying around and he should watch his p's and q's. But I'm not convinced that it's ethical to send an anonymous letter, ever, in any situation. Is it?

When I think of taking action, I see great potential harm. When I think of taking no action, I see great potential harm. Our students deserve to be protected, but then so does our department chair. And God knows I'm not eager to insert myself into this soap opera. But shouldn't someone?

Stewing in Silence

Dear Stewing,

Yes, I do think someone should step into this drama. Ideally that would be the person against whom the offense was committed. So go see that person and urge her to take this matter directly to the proper authority.

There, of course, may be reasons why this is not possible. But because I don't yet know what those reasons are, let's start with the ideal and then work backward toward what we so disparagingly refer to as "the real world" of flawed institutions and flawed humans, afraid to assert their rights for fear of recrimination and embarrassment and the discomfort of social conflict.

Ideally, the injured person would look into the university's written code of procedures and follow them. Presumably some authority has been designated to administer the university's code of justice. As an example, here is the guide on "How to Report Ethical Issues" at the University of Kentucky. As you will see it is quite clear and detailed. For various problems and categories of offense or issue there is a person or agency responsible. In this case the student would go to that person or agency and say, I have been sexually harassed by professor so-and-so and I wish to lodge a formal complaint against him. I want to see justice done, she would say. If the person desires anonymity, perhaps anonymity can be provided. If the person is reluctant to proceed, perhaps another person against whom this offense has been committed can be found to initiate the process. But the point is to use the available process as it's spelled out in the university's procedures, and to avoid spreading rumors based on hearsay. The person against whom the offense was committed ought to initiate the process.

And ideally, of course, this would all occur without regard to position or rank or relationship or possible consequences. It would be done out of regard for justice and principle.

I know that most of us live in "the real world" in which humans generally avoid acting on principle if it is likely to bring conflict and unpleasantness. But I urge you to first try to do this by the book. Make a thorough survey of the available institutional remedies and exhaust them before you turn to whispering and political maneuvering and all the other things people in organizations resort to when official channels are not sufficient to their ends.

Then, if all institutional remedies fail, then and only then, ask yourself: What would Karl Rove do?

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