Forum reviews harassment policy

BY ASHLEY HAUGO | MARCH 12, 2009 7:27 AM

Through the myriad topics covered in Wednesday’s open forum about revisions to the UI’s sexual-harassment policy, one thread bound the responses together: to be proactive rather than reactive.

“We don’t necessarily want to be in a compliance mode,” said Kate Clifford, a consultant from law firm Schuster and Clifford LLP. “We want to be in a teaching mode — changing the climate mode and creating a different environment here so, hopefully, eventually unwanted behavior will be noticed and will not be accepted.”

Clifford was joined by her partner, Saundra Schuster, for a two-day visit to the UI campus to hear concerns, questions, and suggestions from the campus community about possible changes to the UI’s sexual-harassment policies and practices that govern faculty and staff behavior.

The two women first arrived on the UI campus in the fall of 2008 after the state Board of Regents requested the three regent universities review their student sexual-misconduct policies. UI Senior Associate to the President Jonathan Carlson said the university was pleased with the consultants’ work and decided to solicit their assistance again.

“[Schuster and Clifford] were of enormous help to us, so President Mason asked the law firm to do a similar process for our sexual harassment policy,” he said.

In response to a campuswide e-mail sent March 5 by Carlson, slightly more than a dozen people gathered in the IMU’s Bijou to take part in the discussion, which was marked by honesty and an eagerness to listen.

For more than an hour, participants addressed issues that ranged from how educational theater performances depicting harassment situations could best serve its audience to an emotional discussion of the shortcomings of the consensual relationship policy.

While Carlson noted this week’s visit was simply a “fact-finding mission,” and no policy changes have been proposed, the consultants said they hope to implement creative, educational solutions that will alter the culture of the UI and make the university a model.

Despite the somewhat ambiguous nature of the visit, participants walked away from the discussion confident.

“I think it was very successful,” UI graduate student Xin Feng said. “The people expressed some genuine concerns — they were very frank — and the lawyers responded very well.”

The 22-year-old teaching assistant from China came to the UI in August 2008, just days before Professor Arthur Miller committed suicide in the midst of sexual-harassment allegations.

Surrounded by an atmosphere of recent sexual-misconduct claims, Feng went through her sexual-harassment training fearfully asking herself, “Am I going to survive here?”

To her, the forum provided a way to get involved in the newest developments on the issue. Feng said she is interested in seeing the result.

Schuster and Clifford said they departed pleased with the UI’s openness and desire for change. They said they’re confident because significant foundational work — surveys, questions, and ideas — has already been done on campus. Schuster said the UI just needs someone to bring all that knowledge together.

“Kate and I have the advantage of the 10,000-foot view,” Schuster said. “We’re planning to put together the dots on it.”

Carlson said he expects changes to the policy will be made by June 2009.

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