top of page


How Do Universities Deal With Sexual Harassment?

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The sexual harassment charges in Hollywood, the media, and Congress have now expanded to include college campuses. As a professor for more than 30 years, I can’t say I am surprised. The close relationship between student and professor can lead to sexual advances that turn into sexual misbehavior.

Violations of an institution’s sexual harassment policies comes under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can includes sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault.

I’ve found that many institutions are reluctant to act quickly after a harassment charge has been made. Sometimes it’s a matter of the student not lodging a formal complaint for fear how it might affect her grade. It’s also due to professional autonomy whereby professors are individuals and largely do their job in isolation without interference from the administration. Another reason is the desire of the institution to sweep the matter under the rug especially for tenured, well-known faculty. In this regard the problem is similar to that in other fields. Finally, it is difficult to get rid of a tenured faculty so the case against him best be bullet proof.

The #metoo campaign has hit college campuses hard these past few months. On December 1, the University of Virginia announced that John Casey, who won the National Book Award in 1989, won’t be teaching classes in the spring 2018 term while the university investigates three Title IX complaints from former students in the university’s master of fine arts program. The students allege that Casey sexually harassed them and created a hostile environment in the classroom. One of the complainants disclosed that Casey inappropriately touched female students, commented on what they were wearing, used profanity to refer to women in readings and ranked female students based on their attractiveness.

Other sexual harassment cases include at Boston’s Berkelee College of Music last month where two students walked out of class to protest alleged sexual assaults, abuse and harassment. The Boston Globe reported that at least three professors had been allowed to “quietly leave” after students came forward with accusations.

Another charge occurred at Columbia University where William V. Harris, a professor of Greco-Roman history, was accused of sexual harassment last October and stepped down from teaching. It is alleged he groped a 29-year-old female doctoral student and repeatedly forced himself on the student.

In an unexpected twist to sexual harassment charges, San Jose State University allowed an alleged sexual harasser, Lewis Aptekar, to resign in exchange for $75,000, after he criticized how the university handled his case. It seems a graduate student claimed to have been harassed when the professor repeatedly asked her out for dates and asked her about her relationship status. Aptekar was cleared of wrongdoing but one wonders why he resigned. It sounds a lot like all the members of Congress who have resigned in the wake of sexual harassment charges.

What are universities doing to stem the rising tide of sexual harassment charges under Title IX? San Jose State is a good example. They work with the organization, Students Against Sexual Harassment, or SASH, to bring justice against professors who engage in harassment. The group also serves as “safe space” for students affected. SASH works to improve the environment on campus and advocate for sexual harassment training.

The truth of the matter is a college campus is no different than Hollywood. The ‘casting couch’ is the classroom. Some faculty seek out relationships with students in return for preferred treatment, although the promise of a higher grade is remains unstated. Sexual harassment occurs, albeit occasionally, because of the power imbalance. A Hollywood director such as Harvey Weinstein can make or break a career. A professor doesn’t have quite as much extensive power although a better grade might help a student to land a better job. A stronger recommendation might get a student into a better graduate school or land a better job. These relationships are just another form of ‘pay for play’ that infects our society with bad behavior.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 11, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.

Follow Me
  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey Instagram Icon
  • Grey Pinterest Icon
bottom of page