Critical Currents: Academic harassment

Success, promotion and status in institutions of higher education are linked to the decisions - and whims - of one's superiors.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The lazy, hazy days of August have bypassed institutions of higher education this year. The police investigation of Hebrew University Prof. Eyal Ben-Ari on charges of sexual harassment of students under his direct supervision has opened a veritable Pandora's box. All of a sudden a flood of similar allegations has surfaced, not only in the sociology department on Mount Scopus, but throughout the network of universities and colleges in the country. The hyperactivity on academic list servers, blogs and chats is unprecedented: No subject has been debated more intensely in the local academic world in recent memory. This discussion is long overdue, as skillfully noted in this paper's editorial just a few days ago ("Sexual harassment taints campus life"). For a full 10 years, since the Knesset's adoption of the Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment in 1998, scholarly institutions, while formalistically adhering to its provisions, have in fact systematically avoided grappling with its true meaning. It is high time that a precise, detailed, ethical code of conduct be formulated to break the resounding silence and to establish binding norms of gender relations in the apparently not-so-rarified atmosphere of the ivory tower. The legislation classifies a series of acts as falling within the definition of sexual harassment, including not only sexual blackmail and assault, but also unwanted persistent sexual suggestions, sexual innuendos and improper approaches to individuals on the basis of their sex or sexual orientation. Tellingly, the law states explicitly that any behavior of this sort - even when not specifically rejected - is illegal if it involves minors or persons in situations of dependency in the workplace, medical establishments, schools, rehabilitation centers and, yes, also (albeit rather belatedly) in institutions of higher learning. SEXUAL HARASSMENT is a criminal and civil offense punishable by law. Employers, professional organizations and educational institutions are required to make every reasonable effort to prevent sexual harassment, to design procedures for dealing with complaints and to efficiently handle cases brought to their attention. They are also bound to devise relevant guidelines and to ensure that they are disseminated widely. All universities and colleges have ostensibly complied with the letter of the law. But with nary an exception, they have not upheld its spirit. No attempt has been made to translate the basic categories of sexual harassment into clear regulations for gender relations within the admittedly complicated context of academe. Institutions of higher education, especially here where the ultra-hierarchic Germanic model still reigns supreme, are paradigmatic examples of structured dependencies. Undergraduates are inextricably reliant on their instructors, junior lecturers on their tenured seniors, professors on their chairs and deans on their rector and president. Success, promotion and status are everywhere linked to the decisions (and frequently the whims) of one's superiors. These unequal relations are undeniably gendered. The domination of males on Israeli campuses is overwhelming, despite the fact that women constitute well over 50 percent of bachelors, masters and doctorate degree graduates. Only 11% of full professors are female; 89% of those at the top of the stratification ladder are men. This situation is an open invitation to gender discrimination, not to mention sexual abuse. The nonchalant attitude of academic authorities to date can only be understood within this context. Clearly the long-standing claim that they are working according to the book on sexual harassment can no longer be sustained as the evidence of laxness and concealment mounts. A letter promulgated last week by the president and rector of the Hebrew University admits as much. They state unequivocally that the university "will not countenance any breach of trust and will not treat such violations lightly." They go on to promise "to expand and refine the rules governing sexual harassment and delineate what is permissible and what is absolutely forbidden in the relations between students and faculty." The question is why they, and their counterparts on other campuses, have not done so before. The learned exchanges of the past weeks present two facile reasons. The first is that the victims of sexual harassment have rarely filed charges, and when they have mustered the courage to do so, have refrained from identifying themselves (the initial accusations against Ben-Ari were circulated anonymously). Falling back on blaming the victim totally disregards the power discrepancies prevalent on campuses and ignores their adverse, career-threatening implications. It is the job of these institutions to provide a protective environment for all their students, not to expect them to carry this onus themselves. The second - all too easy - explanation relates ironically to the complexity of student-teacher interactions on campus. Consenting adults, it is suggested, should not be stymied in the mature university setting. This argument, too, completely ignores the innate inequality which is the stuff of campus life. BEHIND THIS simplistic rhetoric lies the root cause of inaction: a visceral fear of upsetting the structures that have served the powers-that-be in the academy for so long. The fallacious presumption that recognition of sexual misconduct within their hallowed halls would undermine their standing and severely blot their reputation helps to account for the propensity to both hide allegations behind a thick cloak of secrecy and to avoid any serious confrontation with their consequences. This clandestine bond has now, mercifully, been broken. The vibrant discussions currently taking place have raised the consciousness of even the most reluctant. Nobody questions the need to draw up detailed guidelines for behavior and to vigorously enforce these codes of conduct, although, as Prof. Rachel Elior, the chair of the Hebrew University's Commission on the Status of Women, stated upon the collective resignation of her committee, many doubt "that there is any way to alter the situation of gender discrimination in the university." The political science department at the Hebrew University has nevertheless made a first stab at drafting a proposal which prohibits any sexual contact between lecturers and their students and safeguards student rights should these lines be crossed. The Israel Association for Feminist and Gender Studies is initiating a national code of ethics for all institutions of higher learning. Twenty-two women's organizations led by MK Zehava Gal-On have appealed to Education Minister Yuli Tamir to ensure that this happens. No effort should be spared in bringing these initiatives to fruition. A clear code of conduct is crucial to assure the human dignity of Israeli women. It is essential for the entrenchment of fundamental human rights and gender equality in the country. And, needless to say, it is critical for moving the country's still cumbersome academic institutions into the 21st century. No system of higher education can survive, let alone thrive, in the intellectually stultifying and personally threatening climate generated by male-dominated hierarchical hegemonies. Only a safe and open setting, free of harassment, can nurture true scholarly innovation.