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Fairness Problems With Harassment Policy

We write both to applaud and to criticize the most recent effort by the administration to clarify MIT's harassment policies and procedures. The new guide is a notable improvement over past efforts. One specific point that we felt would be very helpful was the pull-out resource chart, which offers an extensive list of people to contact who may be helpful at various stages of a complaint process.

Our central critique of the guide and a multi-access system in general is not that people shouldn't have many choices, but that the implementation of the policies is unlikely to be consistent, fair, and supportive of victims. Every supervisor will interpret the numerous vague passages in the guide to fit his or her own particular style and views, and it probably will continue to be "business as usual." A single half-day workshop for representatives from each department or division will not be nearly enough to address this problem.

The policy needs to define much more clearly what is and is not "harassment." The current guide gives a few easy examples but evades most of the difficult questions. Further, although the social and legal definitions of harassment are connected to discrimination and inequality, these are largely absent from the current guide. Harassment is reduced to "offensive behavior" and the offenders are mostly characterized as ignorant -- people who will be very willing to change their behavior once informed. This emphasis on ignorance and offensiveness leads to the trivialization and minimization of harassment as an abuse of power.

One the key failings of the current system is that because of the crushing power differential in many harassment situations, some victims are unable to fully avail themselves of the machinery that already exists and feel harassed by the system itself in pursuing a complaint. As a result we believe that MIT needs a professionally trained staff that will serve as advocates for victims of harassment and help to guide people through all stages of the harassment process. This staff would also be responsible for education, training, and continued development of the policies and procedures.

In addition we suggest creating the equivalent of the Committee on Discipline for harassment complaints. A standing committee would ensure some consistency from case to case, and would not be dominated by one person's biases or views. Associate Provost Samuel J. Keyser has strongly objected to this idea. It also appears that high level administrators and faculty are very reluctant to be judged by anyone who is not one of their own.

A final point is one of reporting and statistical tracking of harassment complaints, which is central to stopping repeat offenders. The guide repeatedly mentions reporting but provides no coherent statement on what specific information will be gathered, and what will be done with it. It emphasizes that privacy will be preserved in informal approaches to harassment since no records are kept, but why not keep records without names and still track important information? Names of the accused and/or the complainant could be optional, but strongly encouraged, and perhaps victims could specify a time after which their complaint could be used to substantiate a pattern of harassment. In addition, perhaps accurate statistics of harassment at MIT would break through some people's denial about the seriousness of this issue.

Scott T. Hofmeister G

Ad-Hoc Committee Against Harassment