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Harassment discussed by Academic Council

By Annabelle Boyd

The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment, at the invitation of President Paul E. Gray '54, met on Wednesday morning with the Academic Council to discuss problems in the current MIT sexual harassment policy. The committee presented to the council what it considers to be the essential elements of an effective harassment policy.

The committee, which consists of approximately 40 women students and staff, had previously submitted a Proposed Policy on Sexual Harassment to the MIT administration, and at Wednesday's meeting urged the Academic Council, which is comprised of the Institute's top academic officials, to consider that proposed policy as, at least, a starting point for formulating a new harassment policy.

Maya Paczuski G, speaking for the Ad Hoc Committee, told the council: "Our message is that MIT needs a better sexual harassment policy. [The committee] put a great deal of work into thinking through just what exactly a `better' policy would be." The committee's proposed policy -- an outline of which was first presented to the general MIT community at a forum in mid-October -- focuses on five points the committee says are crucial to a workable sexual harassment policy.

O+ A clear definition of sexual harassment with which the university can work.

O+ An explicit route for filing and handling complaints and imposing penalties.

O+ Careful record keeping of complaints -- including formal, informal and anonymous complaints.

O+ Adequate resources, training, and an advocacy staff to deal with harassment issues.

O+ Community-wide education.

Differing definitions

of sexual harassment

With respect to the first point, the Ad Hoc Committee noted that "there is a wide disparity in what behaviors people at MIT consider to be sexual harassment." Although the current MIT harassment policy does cover sexual harassment, it does so in an "ambiguous way," according to the committee. It recommended that MIT adopt a more explicit definition of harassment -- one that would include a list of behaviors which would constitute sexual harassment.

The second point refers to the implementation of an explicit procedure for filing and handling sexual harassment complaints as well as for imposing penalities. According to the committee, "no clear provisions are made in the current MIT policy to stop harassment and too great a burden is placed on the victim."

In addition, a major deterrent to reporting sexual harassment is the risk which results from "not knowing what are the protection mechanisms in place for complainants, what are the possible outcomes, what is considered clear and compelling evidence, who is going to know about the report and what effect it may have on an individual's career." The committee also claimed in its policy that an explicit complaint procedure with well-defined penalties acts as a deterrent to sexual harassment.

Without a system for keeping careful records of sexual harassment complaints, it is difficult or impossible to know "the trends in or the full extent of the sexual harassment problem at MIT," the committee reported. Moreover, without records, it is difficult to target problem areas for an educational campaign. The committee policy calls for harassment statistics to be made publicly available in an annual report.

The proposed policy recommends that an additional advocacy staff be added to deal with sexual harassment. This staff would be primarily responsible for complainant guidance, community education and record keeping. The committee considers the current MIT system of multiple access points to have a positive benefit. As a result, the advocacy office would not impede reporting elsewhere, under the policy, although all reports of sexual harassment would be consolidated by this office.

According to the committee report, the goal of educating the MIT community about sexual harassment is twofold: preventing acts of sexual harassment, and supporting or protecting those who have been harassed. In addition, the committee says all people who receive complaints must be sensitive to the issues involved and also must be thoroughly knowledgeable about the policy and mechanisms as they evolve at MIT.