Thus Spake Zuska

David Perlmutter, professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, has a column in the November 2 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education on knowing when to keep a secret. Perlmutter offers up some good advice about managing one’s career by knowing when to hold one’s tongue, or even by avoiding hearing the secret someone else is dying to share. He suggests you fend off the would-be gossipers by saying, “I think I know what you are going to tell me, and it’s really none of my business. Gotta run.”

Perlmutter does admit that on occasion, “outing a secret can be both ethically and legally correct”. Thus it’s all the more dismaying to find he includes the following story as an example of a “moral dilemma” with no “quick fix” rather than recognizing it for the ethical and legal situation it is.

An assistant professor once told me that she was “at a complete loss as to what to do” about a terrible quandary she faced in her department. A well-known senior male professor was next in line for the chairmanship, but quite a few female students had approached her over the years complaining about his inappropriate behavior. Should she stay silent, reveal the information herself, or urge the students to report their complaints to higher authorities?

Careers and lives would be affected — including, maybe, her own. I couldn’t tell her what to do, then or now. It was her call, her choice, and she needed to make it with full knowledge of the possible consequences.

He couldn’t tell her what to do? Well, I have news for Mr. Perlmutter. It’s pretty simple. Both he and the assistant professor are obligated, in that situation, to make a report of this information to the Department of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity on campus.

I spoke with Mr. Steve Ramirez of that department on the phone this afternoon, and he confirmed that this is official university policy. He also said he would be giving Mr. Perlmutter a call to help him brush up on the responsibilities and obligations of an associate dean vis-a-vis campus sexual harassment policy.

This whole episode just boggles the mind. Here we are in 2007, and you can be an associate dean at a prestigious institution of higher education, and still be completely clueless about campus sexual harassment policy and its legal implications. You can write an article for the most prominent higher education publication in which you lay forth your astounding ignorance, and no one at the publication will point out to you that, uh, you have just exposed your ignorance and perhaps exposed your university to legal liability.

And meanwhile the asshat senior male professor probably went on to the chairmanship, and is probably happily harassing female students to this day. His illegal behavior has been ignored, and his career has flourished, while the women students are left to cope as best they can and deal with the knowledge that no one in their educational environment will defend them against sexual harassers, even when they summon the courage to speak up. You can bet that female assistant professor learned the same lesson. She, herself, was obligated to report what the students had told her – and she did, she took the complaints to an administrator. But Perlmutter’s lack of leadership conveyed to her the message that it’s probably best not to speak up, because it could damage your career, dear, and it’s just not worth it for the sake of a few students.

This is totally a puke on his shoes situation. It’s too bad I don’t live in Kansas anymore. I hope in Perlmutter’s next column for the Chronicle he’ll explain just how and why he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Comments

  1. #1 Kea
    November 1, 2007

    Yuk, yuk, yuk! Of course, his attitude was standard back in the 1980s when I was an undergrad, and if some greasy old codger insulted me I was supposed to shut up and smile politely, just like my mother taught me. At least I live somewhere now where a man wouldn’t DARE do such a thing. Unfortunately, as we see every day, the hidden attitude of many has not changed all that much. Oh, so I should watch out for my career? Take you career and #@$^%@^$2 it, buddy. This is 2007.

  2. #2 Field Notes
    November 1, 2007

    Playing devil’s advocate here –

    What if the “inappropriate behavior” was not actually sexual harassment? Inappropriate is very vague, not to mention situationally and personally dependent.

    Surely you don’t mean that we should tattle on every “inappropriate behavior” to the higher authority.

    Gossip is gossip.

    I believe the right thing to do is to encourage the students to make a formal complaint, that way it is not second-hand information.

    The guys is a journalist for Christ’s sake – he’s supposed to be in the profession of *not* passing along information that hasn’t been verified first!

  3. #3 decrepitoldfool
    November 1, 2007

    I believe the right thing to do is to encourage the students to make a formal complaint, that way it is not second-hand information.

    Exactly – but what student wants to file a complaint against a professor? Whatever the law says students don’t have a lot of power and it’s easy for their career to be derailed at that stage. Legal remedies are sticky.

    I once worked for a unit whose director (I found out much later) was a notorious harasser on coeds and female staffers alike. People had covered for him, steered students away from him, and generally pretended it wasn’t a problem. Later he proved to have, shall we say, ‘other personal foibles’ and brought down the whole unit with consequences for clients and all the staffers losing their jobs. All that could have been avoided if people had been willing to speak up a lot earlier. He would have either been straightened out or replaced before he could do so much harm.

  4. #4 Zuska
    November 1, 2007

    Field Notes: I believe a lot of things, but believing doesn’t make it so. Nor does it make it legal. The fact of the matter is that if a student reports to you that a professor – or even another student – is engaging in harassing behaviors and thus creating a hostile educational environment, at least at the University of Kansas (and other universities I am familiar with), you are obligated to make a report of this information to the appropriate office. It doesn’t matter what the hell you “believe”. As an employee, that is the official campus policy that you must go by. To do otherwise is to leave your institution open to serious legal liability. Maybe you’d care about that, even if you don’t give a crap about aiding and abetting sexual harassers. It is then up to the office of affirmative action or, in KU’s case, Equal Opportunity, to investigate the complaint and determine whether it is valid, and if so, to take appropriate action. It is NOT up to the professor or the dean to decide to themselves whether or not they think the complaint is sufficiently weighty to bother doing anything about. That is the role of the campus EO office, to investigate and determine the validity of the claim. Not your belief.

    The point of this post, Field Notes, is that the associate dean in this case ought to have been able to distinguish this incident, with its clear ethical and legal obligations, from a situation of mere gossip. Reports of sexual harassment do not fall under the category “gossip”. They have to be investigated, and either verified or disproved.

  5. #5 Bad memories
    November 1, 2007

    I spoke with Mr. Steve Ramirez… and he confirmed that this is official university policy. He also said he would be giving Mr. Perlmutter a call….”

    Zuska, you rock. As a former female grad student in engineering, I thank you for not sitting back and waiting for others to (not) do something. I hope U of K will do some training for their administrators.

    My former department chair would never have believed he was biased, but he gave funding, good grades, office space, job leads and postdocs only to male students. His recommendation letters for women always included the line “She’s a very nice girl.” His recommendations for men always included the phrase “A brilliant career.” He was also the associate dean. As someone said above, in a setting like that, a grad student who complains is risking her career.

    There were no female faculty at the time. There are two junior researchers on staff now. The then-department chair is now in an influential position in a national organization.

  6. #6 Helma Bim
    November 2, 2007

    Zuska, you rock.

    I believe all of us here in Zuska’s comment section should write directly to Dean Perlmutter and explain his obligations to him (ddp@ku.edu). We should also point out to him that even if he is too unprofessional to learn the University’s policies he has a perfectly good dean (abrill@ku.edu) and ombudsman (ombuds28@ku.edu) to help him figure it out.

    Helma Bim

  7. #7 Field Notes
    November 2, 2007

    I have reiterate that I think there is a difference between “inappropriate behavior” and sexual harassment. For example, swearing can be considered inappropriate. Staring at your students body parts can be considered sexually harassing. Maybe you think both are equally worthy of of an official reprimand, denial of T&P, or termination. If the dean is in charge of those decisions, then s/he should decide.

    However, I do think students need to step up to the plate and report the behavior they think creates a hostile environment. I would do so and have done so when it happened to me. I did not fear the consequences for my career. I felt it was the right thing to do because silence condones it. So maybe I don’t get glowing letters or what have you from my department chair or anyone he’s tight with, but frankly I wouldn’t want them from him.

    Maybe I am a numbskull who is new to the way academia functions, and those of you who are more experienced can enlighten me about how exactly I killed my career because I spoke up about a senior male department member and chair whose frequent male favoritism made a hostile environment for me and my fellow female students.

    What he did was not what is legally considered sexual harassment, however it was inappropriate.

    Perhaps what Mr. Perlmutter described as “inappropriate behavior” was just that, not bona fide sexual harassment. If what happened did legally qualify as sexual harassment, then yes, if the rules of the Uni are to report it on behalf of the students, then by all means, he should have done that! If not, then I think the students should be encouraged to report it.

  8. #8 Jenny F. Scientist
    November 8, 2007

    But the guy isn’t being prosecuted for sexual harassment, he’s being considered to be chair. It doesn’t have to meet a ‘legal’ definition of harassment, which often included provable damage to career, but the university’s working definition.

  9. #9 Zuska
    November 11, 2007

    I’ll say this one more time. It’s not up to you to decide if something is “legal sexual harassment” or not. If students complain that a professor has harassed them, or they report behaviors that are harassing type behaviors and the students are unhappy about them, you are OBLIGATED to report this stuff to the appropriate campus authorities. It is not a choice. The appropriate campus authorities then investigate and THEY get to determine whether or not what happened actually constituted sexual harassment and whether sanctions are appropriate.

    You, the Average Jane on campus, do not have the right to say this or that did or did not seem to you to be sexual harassment. It’s not your job or your right to evaluate, only to report.