The Right Coast

October 15, 2005
Sexual harrassment: not that funny
By Tom Smith

Friday afternoon was the compulsory one hour training session on sexual harrassment now required under California law for any employee who is in a supervisory capacity. Since professors sometimes have research assistants, that means us, because we sometimes supervise research assistants, though in my experience, it rarely does any good. I was expecting the session to be horribly boring, but it was actually somewhat interesting. It left me though with a vague sense of unease.

Universities are sufficiently vulnerable to litigation that any agent of the university is advised to report to the administration any activity that might be sexual harrassment, such as if one witnesses a hug that might be unwanted. I don't want anyone to hug me, outside of my family, least of all my students or colleagues, but what if I witness a hug that the hugee seems not to dig? Well, I suppose that won't be a problem because I will witness no such thing. In any event, I've been around my law school for a dozen years or so, and I don't recall ever seeing a hug, unwanted or not. Arguably, the scarcity of hugs is more of a problem in law schools than unwanted hugs, but then I am not the legislative branch of this great state. Why Arnie could not have volunteered himself to undergo sexual harrassment training of some pumped up sort, instead of subjecting the rest of us to this, I don't know.

Another possible area of concern (sorry, it's hard not to talk this way when you are discussing "sexual harrassment" rather than "acting like a pig") is that professors have to report to the administration any complaints made to them by, say, students, even if students would want to keep them confidential. In fairness to the students, it seems like someone should tell them that if a student tells a professor she is being sexually harrassed by another student, or staff, the professor must immediately inform the administration of the incident. If students know that, some of them at least are less likely to tell professors of the problem, which hardly seems like the best way to fix it. But since I am unsure whether questioning the wisdom of sexual harrassment laws might be, in some way that ultimately defies logic, itself sexual harrassment, perhaps I should leave the point right there.

Some other guidelines that I probably misunderstood would seem to suggest that one should just never have a candid conversation, or any conversation really, about some topic that is arguably sexual, with anyone who is either also an employee of the university or a student, either on campus or off, at any time. I suppose an exception to this rule might be if the opinion or observation you are expressing is that you are asexual, have no sexual feelings, and generally have no views on anything sexual. The problem with conversations is that they could later be discovered if somebody sues a university employee and the university. If you had a conversation with X about the relative attractiveness of short versus tall women (or men), then X is later named as a defendant by a short plaintiff in a sexual harrassment suit, when you are deposed, you will have to say that, yes, X said he found short women (or men) particularly attractive. If you are X, so much the worse for you. It is fortunate for us that law professors are so much less interested in sex than other academics, who may well find such restrictions difficult to abide.

I suppose the most troubling thing to me is that it was unclear how significant is the threat posed to professors by groundless claims of harrassment. I have a webcam in my office. Should I record all meetings with students, so I can vindicate my claim that I did not refer to him or her as a "hunk" or "babe"? Would it even be legal to do so (use the webcam; "babe" is clearly out)? The response is, just don't be paranoid, but it would be comforting to know that as long as you had not done anything wrong or even unseemly, you had nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, I did not see any slide to that effect. Republican or not, it made me wish I belonged to a union, and had a union rep with a lot of tattoos and a name like Eddie. In truth, I have so many other things to worry about, that this one will just have to languish at the bottom of the list, somewhere after whether my pool man is correct that my newish fiberglass pool lining has wear issues, which is no trivial matter, I can tell you, unless you consider ten grand trivial.

It reminds me that six or more years ago I had a student who had fallen of his motorcycle, suffered a severe head injury, and become insane. More technically, he suffered serious impulse control and anger management problems common to head injury victims. He was not a good student even before he fell on his head, and was angered at the low grade I gave him. He wanted to meet, and when I was late to the meeting, he confided to my secretary that it was a good thing he had not brought his gun, because if he had, he was not sure what he would do. My secretary proposed that he go powerwalking with her to calm down. (San Diego.) I found out several days later about the gun talk, and was rather alarmed. I talked to one of the academic advisers, and she told me about the head injury and impulse control problems, which was sad, but not reassuring. I thought about calling campus security, and realized that would be a good way to make the student mad enough to shoot me. The university I reasoned would not expel him, but give him counseling, after which he would shoot me. If they expelled him, he would just show up on campus one day and shoot me. I realized that I was on my own; that if the insane, gun-owning student got mad enough to shoot me he probably would, and that the university was not equipped to protect me, (and I am fair-minded enough to assume they would have wanted to do so). So he was a student who got a lot of attention after that, and I wasn't late to any more appointments with him. The time I spent with him turned out to be a complete pain, but much better than a fatal stomach wound. In the end, we did not become friends; in fact, he was a rather unpleasant person. I believe he ultimately failed the bar.