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Oblique angles in sexual harassment

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 26, 2009 7:39 AM

Sexual harassment is a serious issue, it can’t be said too often. But the very ubiquity of the matter can lead to its misunderstanding, ignorant dismissibility, and exploitation. The university’s new training program for its faculty on inappropriate behavior is intended to address the first two, but actually operates under the last, exploiting the topic of sexual harassment under the guise of making strides to curb it. The training program, a computer-based questionnaire module comprising a series of educational articles cemented by online quizzes, was implemented partially in response to the harassment accusations aimed at two UI professors earlier in the school year and the seemingly damning blow to the university’s reputation those situations precipitated. The problem had to be met, will continue to have to, and it is to the credit of the creators of this new program that efforts are being made.

Students and faculty need to understand the kind of behavior that is tolerable, and any resource made available to those parties is important. A training program for university faculty in sexual harassment is valuable as one of many tools in making the confusing and often blurry distinctions of acceptable conduct snap to a sharper focus. Other tools exist, appearing in every first-day syllabus handed out in class, which lay out the expectations of student-teacher composure and in the dozens of seminars and workshops in the community cultivating respectful manners in university relationships. Obviously, problems persist, or we would not have witnessed the end-on-end tragedies of the fall semester or the ruckus set up over allegations of sexual assault by two football players. Another source of information and assistance is only welcome.

But the nature of this particular resource is foundationally suspect. It lends itself more to calming the ripples of an upset image and hand-hidden gossip caused by the accusations, and subsequent suicides, of Arthur Miller and Mark Weiger, and not the more latent problem of harassment itself. As a reaction to general publicity of sexual harassment, the university is setting up this “training” program, which changes neither the effectiveness nor application of existing policy but merely draws attention to the problem and some of its potential solutions. The program is disingenuous because all it manages to accomplish is a heightened atmosphere of what could be called paranoia, in the sense that the main thrust of the university is to scrub away the blemishes left by the “scandals” themselves and not the root causes: ignorance and disrespect.

Students need ready options for this kind of education, but the tactic of pure “brochure-ism” is not working. A forum of discussion and support could provide the groundwork for a solid system for counteracting harassment, involving all tiers of academic society. In fact, this might resolve into a culture of safety instead of one of apparent vanity. Reiterating and drawing attention to policy will not affect its success. We need a more efficient method of creating a safe, educational environment, not merely reactive measures of highlighting previously existing programs while ignoring their faults.


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