Apparently some of the professors at my university have been having trouble keeping their hands off the grad students, so all the faculty have had to go to workshops on “sexual harassment and workplace discrimination”. I personally had to endure a required lecture for all college faculty and a required online training session–with a quiz at the end! Actually, it wasn’t so bad. For someone outside the bubble, it made for an interesting study in the dynamics of liberal bureaucratic despotism.
Here’s one neat thing I learned. How do you suppose sexual harassment is categorized by the establishment? I mean, what sort of an offense is it? Prior to this workshop, I would have said that sexual harassment is wrong because it makes the victim uncomfortable and therefore falls under the general category of “harm to others”. I would have also have called it an offense against workplace professionalism. According to my state and university, it turns out that sexual harassment falls under the genus of “discrimination”. That is, the primary reason it’s wrong is because it treats some people differently than other people.
Interestingly, I sensed a sort of tension between the higher and lower authorities in this matter. The official rules, set by the state and highest levels of the university system, authorize a reign of terror by the human resource bureaucrats over the faculty. There are official “designated protected classes” who are placed utterly above criticism, in that “insults” to them are deemed a punishable offense. It is indeed expressly denied that academic freedom gives any warrant to engage in such “insults”. The incuriosity of academics on certain topics is not surprising. Sexual harassment is defined extremely broadly to include almost any unwanted behavior, including things as trivial as standing in front of a woman and “moving one’s eyes up and down”. (Seriously.) Given the vagueness of the rules for what constitutes “offensive behavior”, an aggressive human resource / equal opportunities office could consider they have a mandate to effectively purge the university of unattractive heterosexual men.
But nothing like this nightmare scenario actually happens, because the actual human resource and equal opportunity officers I heard speak impressed me with their general reasonableness. The lady who gave the main presentation was careful to begin and end by expressing her respect for the faculty and acknowledging that the number of troublemakers are few. She assured us (unprompted) of their commitment to giving due process to the accused. She downplayed the blatantly discriminatory form of the rules (dividing “protected” classes from everyone else) by including examples of unacceptable behavior going the other way (e.g. a female teacher propositioning a male student). The rules, at least as they were presented and quoted to me, allow an extremely radical interpretation, but the lower level enforcers seem to be trying to maintain another interpretation, the most reasonable one that the text will allow.
So, my university is a quite livable and pleasant place, for now.