Editorial -- A Plan to Fight Sexual HarassmentMIT is, as a university, a leader in identifying and dealing with sexual harassment. Ombudsmen Mary P. Rowe and Clarence G. Williams tackle a variety of problems brought to them by members of the community, about 20 percent of which are related to sexual harassment. MIT has the highest collegiate reporting rate of such incidents.
However, as Rowe herself will point out, MIT is not yet doing enough to prevent harassment. The booklet "Stopping Sexual Harassment" is a start, but the need persists for a consistent framework for dealing with harassment.
First, MIT needs to strongly recommend that every single member of the MIT community attend an "awareness session." The purpose of these sessions would be to give examples of sexual harassment so that the community can begin to understand what it is and to encourage victims to report incidents as soon as they occur. This would serve to combat the ignorance that many harassers claim contributes to their actions.
More importantly, it is time for MIT to create a standing committee dedicated to hearing cases of harassment. Analogous to the Committee on Discipline, this Committee on Harassment would be a valuable option for victims who wish to have their cases heard by a representative group chosen from the MIT community. Such a committee would be a vast improvement over the current system, in which a new committee is formed for each harassment case. A standing committee would provide a stable alternative for victims put off from filing charges because of the uncertainty in who will make a decision regarding their case.
It is important to note that there already exist a huge number of options for victims of harassment on campus, including the ombudsmen, the Medical Department, the Campus Police, the counseling deans, and the chaplains. We do not wish to see a Committee on Harassment replace any of these. Instead, it would be one of the many choices that any of the above people could offer to a victim: a formalized, fair method of dealing with the problem.
Even if official action is undesirable or impossible, the harassment victim should still realize the importance of reporting incidents. Most of the counselors will not take action on their own, but rather will explain the options for action or non-action available to the victim. If there is any question, the victim should ask the counselor directly, "Will you listen to my story without taking action?" Reporting is important because it can only help awareness about this problem and may even reveal patterns of behavior that will shed light on other cases and help to find solutions. At the very least, a letter to one of the ombudsmen explaining the situation serves this purpose. And, if necessary and possible, this letter need not give away the victim's identity.
In summary, MIT needs to do two things: educate the community in a more formalized way and create a standing committee to deal directly and consistently with these issues. Victims need to understand the importance of reporting harassment even if they decide not to pursue the issue any further. And each member of the community needs to make sure he or she personally takes the lead in fighting the spectre of sexual harassment.