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Student Forum Addressed Harrasment Procedures

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

As part of the continuing scrutiny of MIT's harassment policy, the Graduate Student Council sponsored a panel discussion Wednesday to focus on student concerns with harassment.

The five panelists and audience members addressed the clarity of the definition of harassment, the need for harassment education, and the decentralized complaint process.

The forum "got some discussion going," said Anand Mehta G, former GSC president and organizer of the event. "It gave us some ideas on where to proceed."

Parts of Dealing with Harassment at MIT, published in November, concerned many people. These included the definition of harassment and the distinction between harassment and freedom of expression.

"Everything described in the guide is still changing," Mehta said, and the forum was designed to gather student input to "help direct that change."

The GSC Peer Advocates Against Harassment committee will now review the discussion and "make a formal set of recommendations or suggestions to the administration," said GSC President Caryl Brown G.

The five panelists consisted of Jennifer E. Carson '94 of Students Against Sexual Harassment, Adam L. Dershowitz G from Student Advocates of Freedom of Expression, Sandra C. Dow '96, Undergraduate Association Vice President Anne S. Tsao '94, and Assef A. Zobian G, chair of the academic projects and policy committee of the GSC.

Clear definition of harassment

The harassment guide asks members of the MIT community to avoid testing the balance between freedom of expression and freedom from unreasonable offense. Students concerned with MIT's policy have focused on the fuzzy distinction they see in the guide.

Seth Finkelstein '85 called for clearer definition of the line between free speech and harassment. Dershowitz agreed on the need for clarity, describing the current definition of harassment as including "everything from being bothered to being raped."

Dershowitz called for a distinction between strict rules about harassment and general guidelines describing how to "play nice." The distinction between informal guidelines of civility and formal rules is "not really addressed in an appropriate way in the policy," he said.

The guide defines harassment as "any conduct ... which has the intent or effect of unreasonable interfering with an individual's or group's educational or work performance ... or which creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment."

Mehta proposed changing the definition to say that harassment occurs when unwanted behavior continues after some kind of complaint is made.

"I think [Mehta's definition] would be better," Carson said. Tsao agreed, but Dow questioned how many kinds of repeated behavior should be defined as harassment.

Glen Adams G asked the panelists to each give an example of an action that constituted "illegal" harassment and one example of "acceptable" harassment.

Carson and Dow said that shouting a racial slur at someone represents a punishable action, but Carson said a crude sexist joke in a dormitory lounge would be acceptable.

Tsao said that derogatory sexist comments by a professor to a female student would be punishable, and an intentionally rude question about a religious practice would be acceptable.

Dershowitz said that offering sexual favors for grades is harassment, but a statement like "Women can't handle this place" should be allowed.

Centralization, education discussed

Under MIT's current policy, records of harassment cases are kept only by the supervisors to whom complaints are reported. This system is "not a reliable mechanism," Tsao said.

Panelists and audience members also discussed the decentralized system for filing harassment complaints. Under the current policy, any supervisor at the Institute can receive a complaint.

Carson said the supervisors are given a large amount of authority but varying levels of guidance. She suggested a full-time committee of 20 rotating members to handle harassment complaints.

While there is a committee on discipline for inter-student conflicts, there is no grievance board for student-faculty conflicts, Mehta said. The discussion at the forum showed "a consensus that there needs to be such a [grievance board]" for students.

"The biggest thing that will help harassment at MIT is education," said Susan Ipri G. In his introduction, Zobian proposed "harassment workshops" to educate students about coping with harassment issues.

Dow suggested providing some type of harassment education during Residence and Orientation week as part of Project Move Off Your Assumptions.