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Letters to the Editor

The Tech's recent editorial on fighting sexual harassment gives undue credit to the Institute's harassment policy and makes two suggestions which may be impractical ["A Plan to Fight Sexual Harassment," November 6, 1992].

The Tech is far too generous in calling MIT "a leader in identifying and dealing with sexual harassment." MIT's definition of harassment, based on workplace harassment rules, is too broad and too vague to be appropriate for the personal lives of students. Because of the range of speech it regulates, the policy probably violates state law, and the Institute's materials give no clear guidance regarding what is harassment, stating only that certain behaviors, including allegedly sexist jokes and remarks, "may" constitute harassment.

Given the vagaries of the definition, The Tech's suggestion that "every single member of the MIT community attend an `awareness session'" on sexual harassment may be unproductive. If examples of harassment are given without counterexamples of behaviors not considered harassment, the participants will learn little about the boundaries of harassment. But under MIT's vague definition, giving counterexamples may be impossible, because virtually any slight can be construed by the hypersensitive as harassment. The sessions may also have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, by suggesting that expression of controversial views could be punished.

The Tech suggests a special harassment committee, composed of a representative group drawn from the community, to judge cases. In principle, this is a good idea. But unless the committee's members were chosen at random, it would probably not be representative.

From my experience as an interviewer for the Undergraduate Association Nominations Committee, I know that participants on Institute committees are largely self-selected. Rarely are more than a handful of people are willing to devote time to serve regularly on a committee. Those who do volunteer for narrowly-focused committees, particularly those dealing with politically charged subjects like harassment, are rarely disinterested parties. In many cases, they have an ax to grind.

Where interest is low, permitting elections to choose the members will not necessarily provide balance, either, as demonstrated by the Graduate Student Council, which has been repeatedly captured by activists from the Science Action Coordinating Committee. Assuming non-random selection, the harassment committee would probably end up composed mostly of strident feminists, committed to teaching alleged offenders a lesson without much concern for guilt or innocence.

The views of ordinary students on what constitutes harassment would go underrepresented. For this reason, discipline should be meted out by a committee with a mission sufficiently broad that single-issue partisans will not swamp the committee -- perhaps the Committee on Discipline or one of the student judiciary committees.

Lars Bader G