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Thursday October 5, 2000

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Issues in sexual harassment must be considered

Sexual harassment is an issue that no one should be taking lightly. The Faculty Senate is currently considering changing the university's sexual harassment policy to further protect the accusers; however, complexity intrudes on every angle of this issue, and the worst thing we can do is charge blindly ahead.

Retaliation against those who have been sexually harassed is a serious problem. Once someone is known to have brought charges of sexual harassment, or blown the whistle on anything improper that occurs in the workplace, they will be treated differently. No one is saying that this is right, but it happens. Retaliation does not always take the form of outright penalties. In this day and age, few would be stupid enough to fire or demote someone immediately after they make a harassment claim. However, making that claim can still mean the end of a career. Rather than being penalized, co-workers can be afraid to interact with the whistle-blower. After all, they can't be sure if they might say something offensive, or if their words can be somehow misconstrued. Supervisors, as well, can start to punish the whistle-blower, not by taking action against them, but by ignoring them.

All of these thoughts must run through the mind of anyone who considers bringing a claim of sexual harassment in the workplace. No matter what the outcome of the complaint is, the accuser will face consequences. This is why there is not going to be a rush of dubious complaints. It takes absolutely intolerable conditions to cause someone to put their career in jeopardy, by standing up against harassment. No one who wins a sexual harassment case, or wins an award for any damages, is glad that they had to go through the wringer, regardless of the award.

Rights of the victim are important, but that does not mean that we can ignore the rights of the accused. A fundamental part of due process is the right to face an accuser. Of course, the university is not a Federal courthouse, so there is no obligation to provide it - whenever we have the opportunity, though, we should make the effort. In elementary and high schools, this sort of thing is ignored all of the time: principals can search someone's locker, or bring someone in on an anonymous complaint, whenever they want. We, however, should be better. Whenever possible, we should give the accused the right to face their accusers. It may be said, of course, that if the accuser remains anonymous, there can be no retribution against them. However, the accused cannot provide an adequate defense if he does not even know his accuser. If the accused is not presented with a specific incident to which he can respond, the best defense that can be managed is something along the lines of "I would never harass anyone." Not overly convincing. The right to face an accuser is one thing, but the right to an adequate defense is something that we cannot, in good conscience, deny to anyone.

The discussion in the Faculty Senate is due to continue, and that's a good thing. Before we make any move, we need to seriously consider it. As long as we tread lightly, and keep all the factors in mind, we should reach the right conclusion.