Truth, transparency required to improve sexual harassment management on campus

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With the recently published pilot campus survey on sexual assault and the increased activity of the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, it would appear that the University of Miami is scrutinizing sexual harassment and assault on campus.

However, this information comes to light followed by a shadow of a ghost of the past: this month, former graduate student Monica Morrison filed a lawsuit against the university for the mishandling of her 2012 sexual harassment complaints against former professor and renowned academic Colin McGinn. The language of the suit contends that the university, specifically the now-defunct Office of Equality Administration (OEA), failed to be transparent with Morrison while handling her complaints against McGinn and failed to protect Morrison from academic and professional retaliation by McGinn and a colleague.

Morrison, who believed that she filed a formal sexual harassment complaint, later learned that the charges were brought to the faculty senate as an informal complaint of “failure to report a consensual romantic relationship,” a lesser charge, with no mention of her original allegations of sexual harassment.

Even so, the university still stands its ground that it took the best route possible to quickly solve the issue.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” former UM President Donna Shalala wrote in a letter to the editor of the Miami New Times this April. “Most college and university mechanisms for dealing with claims of sexual harassment against tenured faculty are extensive and protracted. The University of Miami is an example of how one institution got it right, resulting in the resignation of this faculty member. The process was lightning speed – a rarity in the history of higher education. UM is a safer, better place for it.”

Eric Isicoff, an attorney for UM, even called it “the poster child for responsibly and quickly dealing with allegations.”

Isicoff also stated that while “the professor’s conduct was certainly not appropriate by university standards, it was determined he did not violate the law or engage in any conduct that would reasonably be deemed unlawful.”

Regardless of the verdict that was reached after investigating trails of disturbing emails and text messages between McGinn and Morrison which included references to Nabokov’s “Lolita” and requests for sexual favors, there is still no explanation as to why Morrison received no clear communication about the change in the nature of her complaint or why the university took it upon themselves to make the decision to route the complaint as informal instead of advising Morrison on making this decision. Out of all the concerns the school must juggle, complaints of this nature cannot afford any extra room for ambiguity.

More disappointing was the university’s failure to protect Morrison from retaliation by her previous mentor. McGinn and colleague Edward Erwin wrote about the situation on McGinn’s personal blog, allegedly circulated threatening emails around campus and wrote about Morrison to philosophy professors at other schools, hurting Morrison’s chances of receiving a prestigious fellowship in the future.

So concerning was the retaliation that more than a hundred philosophy professors and students from around the country signed an open letter asking UM to do more to protect Morrison from retaliation. The letter, addressed to then-Vice Provost David Birnbach and Shalala, writes: “We ask that her university discharge its duty to protect its students from acts that amount to de facto retaliation from professors about whom they have complained.”

The university’s actions were at odds with its stated mission to “to prevent retaliation and to insure [sic.] that all parties, including the complainant are protected from further harm.” 

Almost three years have passed since McGinn was pressed to resign at the end of 2012, and there have been visible changes in policy since then. The OEA has now evolved into Workplace Equity and Performance. We now have a new Title IX director, a campus coalition and the school’s first comprehensive sexual harassment manual as of this past February.

However, in order to move forward with meaningful improvements to the safety and comfort of all individuals on campus, the administration must honestly evaluate its past wrongs. Was the handling of Morrison’s case really a response to be proud of, or just a “poster child” of the university’s damage control?

 

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board. 

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