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Group outlines possible sexual harassment policy

By Irene C. Kuo

A detailed definition of sexual harassment, an annual compilation of statistics, and a trained advocacy staff to handle cases and direct education of the MIT community are among the recommendations of a policy which the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment will propose to

the Academic Council in late October.

The committee revealed an outline of the policy last Friday at the MIT Forum on Campus Sexual Harassment, which featured Bernice Sandler, director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Association of American Colleges.

The committee proposes to define sexual harassment as "any conduct, on or off campus, relating to the gender or sexual identity of any individual or group, which has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with the education or work performance of a member or members of the MIT community by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment."

The committee seeks to implement a provision for anonymous complaint resolutions, specific guidelines for a formal grievance hearing, and clear penalties for those found guilty of sexual harassment. Until now, victims have been as victimized by the procedure of seeking redress and reporting harassers as by the attacks, asserted committee member Pam Loprest '86.

The second goal of the committee is to initiate a system for recording complaints of sexual harassment in order to document trends in, or the extent of, the problem. As most offenders harass many women at a time or serially, according to the committee, it is particularly important to take note of multiple incidents of sexual harassment by a particular individual.

"Such a report would make clear to victims that something could be done and would communicate to harassers that they are being watched," said Ann Russo, a lecturer in Women's Studies and another committee member. "Right now, we only have stories and anecdotes," a situation which she called unacceptable at an institution which espouses the scientific method.

The third major recommendation of the committee is to provide a trained, centralized staff to sensitize the community to the problem of sexual harassment and to ensure consistent treatment of offenders. Loprest said that under the present system, victims are often referred to people who do not know the nature and complexity of sexual harassment.

"Imbalance of power"

Discussion of the proposed policy at the forum followed related remarks by Sandler, whose organization is the oldest one of its kind for women students, faculty, and administrators. Due in part to her group's efforts, sexual harassment is now categorized as a form of discrimination.

Sandler cited recent publicized charges against perpetrators at various American universities, including the former president of Drexel University and the student financial aid officer at another school.

"Sexual harassment involves ethical issues, academic freedom, privacy issues, the relationship between men and women, and imbalance of power," she said, "but the power relationship particularly captures the essence of sexual harassment in academe."

The name is new, but the problem is not, she asserted. According to her statistics, 20 to 30 percent of undergraduate women are sexually harassed by someone in power. Moreover, students are not the only ones affected. Thirty-two percent of tenured women faculty at Harvard one year reported sexual harassment, and 49 percent of their untenured female colleagues had similar complaints, Sandler said.

"Victims of sexual harassment are made to feel that they caused the bad behavior of others, told to consider the family and reputation of the men involved, urged to handle such problems on their own since they will face them in `real life' as engineers," she declared.

While perpetrators have traditionally wielded formal power over their victims, she said that a growing concern of her organization was student-to-student harassment.

"Campus peer harassment involves not formal power, but the informal power men have over women," Sandler maintained. "Think of how you would react to seeing a group of men on the street at night. How might you react if it were a group of women? The group of men is scary."

Forms of sexual harassment span a continuum, according to Sandler. They range from subtle -- offensive posters/calendars and disregard for contributions to a project -- to overt -- pressure to have sex and unnecessary touching. Some people even place rape at this end of the spectrum.