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.