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Harassment Guide Offers Alternatives

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

In early November, the Institute released a harassment guide which details the policies and procedures for individuals involved in a harassment complaint.

Dealing with Harassment at MIT, distributed to every student and employee, was primarily developed by Associate Provost for Institute Life Samuel J. Keyser. The guide addresses all forms of harassment, including harassment based on gender, race, and age, Keyser said.

The community's response to the manual has varied considerably. Some have had favorable impressions of the guide, while others have found problems with the decentralized system which deals with complaints, the guide's definition of harassment and its conflict with the freedom of speech, and the guide's length, 68 pages.

According to MIT's policy on harassment, "Harassment is any conduct, verbal or physical, on or off campus, which has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's or group's educational or work performance at MIT or which creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment." The guide expands on this definition by providing examples of behavior that are and are not considered harassment.

MIT has a multi-access, multi-option system for dealing with harassment. This means that a complainant (the individual pursuing a claim of harassment) has several routes to choose from, depending on how he or she wants the case handled.

The book includes a fold-out table of resources; a description of the policies and standards; a quick guide for the complainant, along with more detailed information on the complainant's options; and information for the complaint handlers (the person named as an offender in a harassment case) and bystanders. In addition, the appendix contains the regulations of the Committee on Discipline and how the Office of Residence and Campus Activities handles formal hearings.

"The guide is actually not about a policy; it's primarily about procedures," Keyser said. It is a response to people who wanted the procedures for dealing with harassment to be better understood, he said.

"What is unique about the guide is that it talks about harassment from the point of view of the four people involved: the complainant, the respondent, the complaint-handler, and the bystanders," he said. This is one reason why the guide is so long, he added.

General response to the guide

Keyser thinks it is too earlier to gauge the response from the MIT community since the guide has been out for a short time. But he said he was aware of the students at Senior House who burned the guide in protest and of the letters to the editor printed in The Tech.

"One of the issues people are concerned about is the vague definition of harassment," Keyser said. But last week's Supreme Court ruling on a harassment case, which was written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, says that the definition of harassment cannot be mathematically precise. Rather, it has to be determined with each individual case, he explained.

Rebecca Widom '94 said she does not see vagueness as a problem because she has not seen a better alternative.

The Ad Hoc Committee Against Harassment, which consists of staff and students, expressed some concerns with the guide, according to committee member Scott T. Hofmeister G. The committee feels that it does not clearly define what is and is not harassment and that it does not set up the procedure of who makes the decisions and what standards this person uses. The committee also believes that there should be more support for people making harassment charges.

"I think we would be happy with a policy that was more narrow in its statement and broader in its enforcement," Hofmeister said. "Right now we have a broad definition and very limited enforcement."

The guide is "fine for what it does" to represent the system, Widom said. However, the system is "incredibly confusing and messed-up," she said. She compared it to a plate of spaghetti and gave the fold-out table as an example of the system's confusion.

Freedom of speech violated?

Freedom of speech and freedom of having the right to a congenial working environment are the heart of the harassment issue, Keyser said.

About 20 students gathered at Senior House on the day of the guide's release to burn their copies in protest of what they viewed to be the guide's infringement of freedom of speech. They were upset by a passage on page 18 of the book:

"Freedom of expression is essential to the mission of a university. So is freedom from unreasonable and disruptive offense. Members of this educational community are encouraged to avoid putting these essential elements of our university to a balancing test," the guide says.

Keyser said, "What the guide is trying to say is if you are engaging in behavior which is offensive to someone, would you please consider not doing it. It tries to avoid placing those two things in conflict with one another.

"The guide doesn't say that you do not have the right to freedom of speech, but it does say that you have to understand that your speech can be hurtful to someone else and would you please consider that before you exercise your right," Keyser continued.

The policy does not violate free speech, though the guide could offer further explanation, Widom said. There are a number of free speech issues on campus, such as the poster policy, but they have not generated the "same kind of ruckus," she said.

Centralized vs. decentralized

Keyser provided two reasons why the Institute has a decentralized system for dealing with harassment complaints. "The multi-access, multi-option system provides the greatest kind of flexibility for a complainant -- if one particular avenue fails, there are still others," he said.

The second reason is that with a centralized office, "you are putting an awful lot of power in the hands of a small group of people," he said. If the office does not "meet the needs of a complainant or a set of complainants, then the system is stymied," he said.

However, because the system is decentralized, "There's not a good way to make sure cases are dealt with consistently," Widom said. Not all of the complaint-handlers are trained to deal with these issues, she said. But if there was a more centralized office, it could coordinate training people to deal with harassment, she added.

The idea of flexibility is a good one, "but in reality there aren't many options now," Widom said. Furthermore, with a structured board to review a centralized office to deal with harassment, "You could have a system of checks and balances," she said.

Keyser agreed that it may be possible for a harassment charge to result in different outcomes depending on which option the complainant chooses. But all the complaint handlers have the similar goal "to make it possible for people to work in the most productive fashion possible at MIT and learn and be educated," he said.

The inability of the Institute to record harassment cases at one centralized location was also found to be a problem stemming from the multi-access system.

"The key problem with the multi-access system is one of statistics and recording," Hofmeister said. "Clearly there were rapes that occurred at MIT last year, it's just that they were not reported ... or not pursued formally with the Campus Police," he said. There needs to be stronger encouragement for people to make a record of formal and informal complaints, he said.

Furthermore, there are records in the provost's office, but who has access to them, Hofmeister asked.

Records are kept of procedures of formal complaints but not of informal complaints, according to the guide. The Office of the Provost keeps a record of formal complaints against employees, the COD, and the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs keeps records of formal complaints, and the Campus Police keep separate records of complaints brought to them. The special assistants to the president, who only handle informal complaints, keep statistics as well.

Length an issue

Some critics have said that the guide is too long. But, "in earlier versions of the book people were curious of their own options and the options of the other people involved," Keyser said. By including the perspectives of the four involved parties, "It was hard to keep the volume short," he said.

There is a three-page "Quick Guide" in the front of the book, which gives a short description of the available options, he said.

Hofmeister was not upset by the length of the book. Still, the guide "goes on at length explaining the obvious -- the direct approach is something we're all aware of," he said. The manual combines "how to have effective human relations with how harassment complaints will be processed," he said.

"My personal hope is that the community will give this system a chance to work,"Keyser said. "In a certain sense, we are in a fortunate position because all of the parties in our community share the same goal, and what we are really arguing about is the way to achieve it," he said. This problem is easier to solve than if we had different goals, he said.

Other people who contributed to the guide included: Associate Dean of the Graduate School Isaac M. Colbert, Associate Dean for Residence and Campus Activities Andrew M. Eisenmann '75, Margaret A. Gray of the Personnel Office, Assistant Dean for Resident and Campus Activities Mary E. Ni '84, and Mary P. Rowe, special assistant to the president.

In addition to the guide, a training video for complaint handlers was developed. The video consists of a three-hour session where Institute complaint handlers discuss how to deal with complaints that arise. "It's intended as a vehicle for discussing the kinds of issues that might arise when someone brings a complaint," Keyser said.