Thursday, November 17, 2016

Investigating Harassment, part 1

It is one thing to study sexual harassment as a general problem and another to investigate particular cases. Let us consider an example that is, to use the familiar Hollywood phrase, based on a true story.*

Early in the spring semester a student notices one of her professors at a political demonstration. His shared interest in one of her favorite causes adds to her already favorable opinion of him as a brilliant scientist and engaging teacher. Soon afterwards, her roommate, who had been one of the leaders of the demonstration, receives an email from the professor thanking her for organizing the event. She passes it on to her roommate because she knows she is taking his class. The student now answers the mail, thanking him, and he suggests they meet and talk politics. They do so, but the conversation also turns to the class she is taking with him, the professors research interests, and the possibility of a career for the student in the discipline. He believes she has an aptitude for it and tells her so. In fact, he encourages her to pursue a career in science.

Over several meetings (held mainly in cafes), they also discuss personal matters, including her relationship troubles. And he shares stories of his own problems in turn. At the end of one of these conversations, during which they discuss some current romantic troubles she is facing, he walks her home and, on parting, gives her a warm hug in comfort. With the coming of summer, they lose contact and their relationship becomes less personal. As she nears graduation, she approaches him for a letter of recommendation and, as he had expected when they first met, he is able to write her a glowing one. She is accepted into the graduate school of her choice and eventually earns a PhD. Over the years, they work together, albeit peripherally, in a number of collaborations and share author credit on several papers.

About ten years after their first meeting, however, the professor is informed by a Title IX officer that the events I just described are part of a sexual harassment investigation. The student has lodged a formal complain with the Office of Civil Rights at his university, alleging that his behavior caused her profound distress. How should the investigation proceed? How are we to decide whether the professor had in fact harassed the student?

First of all, let's agree that the harassment, if it occurred, occurred during that spring semester when they met. That, indeed, is all we are assuming that she is alleging. If her allegations are true then, by the time she went off to grad school, she would have been a "survivor". This means that the ten intervening years are of no relevance to answering our question, Was she harassed? And that means that she could have filed her complaint at any time after their last meeting.

It seems, at first pass, understandable for her to wait until at least after she had been accepted to graduate school. But it should be kept in mind that she might also want to deal with the harassment issue before she even asks for the letter of recommendation. Indeed, one critical question I would have asked as investigator, ten years after the fact, is why she asked for the letter of recommendation. If she was concerned about what he thought of her, and the relationship had "cooled", why didn't she see this as too risky? Couldn't she have chosen a safer reference, where there was nothing amiss in the relationship? I would have been a bit suspicious, in other words.

But let's imagine an alternative universe in which she had come to me before asking for the letter, there would be all kinds of opportunity to clarify the situation and demonstrate wrongdoing. Presumably, her distress was caused by the thought that his interest in her was not purely intellectual. She was worried that her career now depended on keeping things "personal" with him. The hug was "too friendly" for her, let's say. It felt "off". And now she was worried that he would proposition her. Perhaps she was worried that he would somehow tie this proposition to the much-needed letter of recommendation.

Well, all of that could have been clarified by having her ask for the letter of recommendation in writing. Or perhaps surreptitiously recording the request. And then having him make the counter-offer, i.e., "You can have the letter if you sleep with me." Or, somewhat less obviously, he could promise the letter, then make his move, and then hold back the letter when she refused. All of this could be documented with the help of the investigator—if, that is, she had gone to administrators at the time. It might even be possible to go the extra step of catching him trying to sabotage her chances of getting into grad school by writing an unsolicited letter warning about her. With the right institutional support, he could be exposed in this as well.

Like I say, this is a fictitious example. So let's also imagine an alternative scenario in which she works with the investigator to set the trap and he doesn't fall into it. Or, rather, suppose she was simply wrong to be distressed. She asks for the letter. He writes it and asks for nothing in return. Everything is documented. All the emails are in the hands of the Title IX officer. Is this really a case of harassment? I don't think it is. But I'm interested to hear what others think.

(In part 2, I'll deal with what I see as the consequences of these imagined scenarios for the assessment of his behavior ten years later.)

*I am of course basing my example on the case of Geoff Marcy and Sarah Ballard. I should actually two differences between my example and the true story. First, I have left out the reason that the relationship cooled over the summer. In the Marcy-Ballard case, it was because he had been warned that his behavior was being talked about. Second, I have him walking, not driving, her home after their last conversation, and I have him hugging her rather than putting a hand on her shoulder.

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