Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Who Is Afraid of Communitarian Decency?

Amitai Etzioni does not take away the right lesson from the tragicomedy he recounts below, but still.... :

"The University of California recently joined a growing number of schools that have placed a ban on “romantic or sexual” relationships between professors and students. In particular, the rule prohibits relationships between professors and any students that they advise or evaluate in any way, as well as those students who they may be “reasonably expected” to advise or evaluate.

Some students, and even some professors, have claimed that this policy violates their right to engage in a relationship between two consenting adults. However, as one professor argues, the rules are necessary because of the power gap that exists between professors and students, which precludes such relationships from ever being truly consensual.

(Source: New York Times, 10/1/03)

I have been there. I am familiar with the complications that are inherent in teacher-student and employer-employee relationships and how the dynamics of these relationships have the potential to ruin careers. The following passage from My Brother’s Keeper should serve as a cautionary tale:

The communitarian drive was humming right along, when I hit a bump in the road. A young, lanky woman applied for a position as a research assistant. I interviewed Jean in the same format I always follow: door wide open; my secretary within eye-line and earshot. The reason I follow the open door policy is that I have seen professors’ careers ruined after they have been charged with sexual harassment, even if, in the end, the courts or hearings fully cleared them. (I, of course, do not speak of those actually guilty of such actions.) Hence, I bend over backwards to avoid such accusations. For instance, I avoid riding in crowded elevators, just so nobody can claim that I touched them.

Jean brought with her an impressive resume and answered questions brightly. A few days later, when I called to inform her that we were ready to hire her, she informed me, “You ought to know that I am applying for a job at the CIA. However, my security clearance is going to take many months because I used to live in Poland.” This seemed to make sense and Jean started working for us, doing a credible job, although she did not quite click with the other staff.

After a short period on the job, Jean suggested that her work would improve if she could take a course that she believed was germane to her research assignment. She asked that we pay several hundred dollars for the course. I reluctantly agreed but wondered, “What if you do get clearance in a few days?” Jean countered, “In that case, I will pay you back the tuition fee.” She had barely started when her clearance came through, and within a day she packed to leave. When I asked for the refund, she simply refused.

At this point I made a mistake. I instructed the university to hold her last paycheck until the matter was resolved. When she found out about it, she stopped by. She spoke briefly and calmly: “If I do not have my money by five o’clock, I will accuse you of sexual harassment and tell your wife that we had an affair.” I should note that we had no personal relationship of any kind, not even a cup of coffee nor a walk in the campus yard. I realized, though, that I was defenseless, and soon called the university to release the funds. I never heard from or saw her again.

For quite a while I felt violated. True, I was wrong to block her pay. People who work are entitled to their compensation even if they did not abide by some agreement they made. Despite this belated insight, I felt pushed around and unable to defend myself against ludicrous charges. Worse, I had to face the fact that the same thing could be done to me, again, any time, by anybody.

My sense of being abused and powerless festered for a while until I decided that these feelings might help me be more empathetic to other victims of harassment. When a research assistant working at an institute nearby came crying to my motherly secretary, and I mean crying, because his professor was giving him a hard time, I visited with him. I very well may not have done so before Jean taught me a lesson. When one of my colleagues jokingly complained about co-eds rejecting his advances, suggesting that they should enjoy older, experienced men, I did speak up with a little more vigor than I might have done before my short course on what it is like to be at the receiving end of such treatment.

The incident had another lasting effect on my relationship with the young people who work with me. When one of them was mugged and brutally assaulted in Georgetown, I helped her regain her composure over the weeks that followed, but did not feel free to show her how deeply concerned I was. I wanted to give her a shoulder to cry on but I kept her at arm’s length. The same was true when the father of one of the younger staff members suddenly died, and she was grief-stricken. Another young staff member dropped by my office often and unnecessarily, looking deeply into my eyes, and asking to accompany me to meetings to which I was invited, often at the end of the day. I tried to transfer her to another part of the university, but she refused to be reassigned. Luckily, she was accepted into a top medical school, and broke away.

The “communitarian” lesson of all this is far from easily drawn. All too often in the academic world in which I live, young women are pressured to engage in sexual acts by people who have power over them, co-eds by their professors, junior faculty by those who will rule on their tenure. A New York colleague of mine damaged more than a student, which is bad enough. He got her a PhD degree (which was relatively easy, because two other members of the committee had mistresses they had to keep happy), and then an assistant professor post. He really got us all abuzz when he refused to leave the room when her tenure was voted on. In short, there is not and never was any doubt in my mind that those who do so abuse others--and academic standards--should be exposed and properly punished. But there should also be a way for someone to clear his or her name, in full. Currently even those who are found not guilty in various hearings are still assumed to be guilty by many in their campus communities.

There must also be some clarification of the code of conduct. A colleague was charged with sexual harassment because a co-ed claimed that he was staring at her through his goggles in a swimming pool. The charge was brought under the rule that harassment can take the form of creating a “hostile environment” and--that what constitutes such an environment is determined by those who declare themselves to be its victims. These kinds of rules are too fungible, and undermine any notion of due process and fairness that should be extended even to old, white males.

Maybe it is impossible to have a close personal relationship with one’s staff or students--without fearing that it might be misunderstood, mischaracterized." (Amitai Etzioni, Amitai Etzioni Notes blog, October 7, 2003; 04:02 PM).


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