Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
November 5, 1999

Senate mulls separate faculty sexual harassment policy

by Linda Charles
Faculty need protection so they can address controversial issues in the classroom or freely conduct research without being accused of harassment.

That is the underlying theme of committee members who have written a draft of a faculty conduct policy now under discussion in the Faculty Senate (see story on page 4). In addition to laying out formal and informal procedures to follow when faculty members are accused of misconduct, the proposed policy offers a new version of a sexual harassment policy.

If approved, it would mean that faculty would fall under a different sexual harassment policy than others in the university community.

Committee member Heimir Geirsson, philosophy and religious studies, said the current ISU sexual harassment policy is based on Equal Employment Opportunity Com-mission guidelines for sexual harassment in a non-academic workplace environment.

That does not translate well to an academic environment where there occasionally is a need to discuss controversial or sexually graphic issues, Geirsson said. Faculty may raise issues in the classroom that cause students to feel uncomfortable, such as a sociology professor discussing prostitution or an English professor discussing the beat poets of the 1960s.

But that is what teaching is about, said committee chair Jack Girton, zoology and genetics.

"Faculty are in the special position of needing to speak freely, even when it is difficult for people to hear what they are saying," he said. "Students often become uncomfortable in the classroom, but that's the point. We need to make them think."

Denise Vrchota, journalism and mass communications and the third member of the committee, said the committee added a sexual harassment section to the conduct policy to assure academic freedom for faculty.

While the current policy mentions academic freedom, Geirsson said it is at the end of the policy, included more as an afterthought, and is too vague.

"ISU faculty are left guessing as to what may be said in the classroom," he said.

The committee's version of the sexual harassment policy says conduct that is reasonably regarded as offensive and substantially impairs academic or work opportunities may be defined as sexual harassment. However, if that conduct occurs in an academic setting (such as the classroom), the conduct also must be persistent, pervasive and not germane to the subject matter before it can be classified as sexual harassment.

Geirsson noted that some universities with sexual harassment policies similar to Iowa State's have lost recent court cases. Those cases involved efforts to prevent faculty from teaching or saying things with a sexual connotation in an academic setting.

Girton said the committee is not necessarily trying to formulate a different policy for faculty than other members of the university community.

"I think what we have is really good," he said. "If the administration wants to consider it for the rest of the university community, we would be open to that."

However, it was the job of the committee to propose a policy that gave better protection to faculty, whether or not other groups adopt it as well, he said.

The current policy is inadequate to protect faculty's academic freedom, Girton added.

"Faculty need to be able to go boldly where no one has gone before, to coin a phrase," he said. "That's what we're here for. As long as it's legitimate, then you should be protected. But if an action is for your personal desires, then you are not protected. And your peers would be among the first to say you're wrong."

Geirsson said that the committee's version includes an informal process that is "victim friendly" and not as emotionally draining as the formal process.

"Victims want to end the harassment," he said. "The informal process allows that to happen without an investigation and the emotional distress involved with a formal process."

Vrchota echoed the fears of the other two committee members when she said she is worried concerns about the sexual harassment policy might overshadow discussion of the rest of the proposed faculty conduct policy.

"One of our concerns is that faculty and others will only focus on the sexual harassment issue. There are other equally important topics covered in the policy. We need feedback on the other parts of the proposed policy too," she said.

The proposed faculty misconduct policy is available online at:

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