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Sexual Harassment and Open Discourse

University administrations should seek a middle way

Last Thursday, the American Association of University Professors released a report stating that the growing federal role in combatting sexual assault has had a “chilling effect” on free speech on university campuses. The report suggests that some students have become so hypersensitive to the issue that they confuse intellectual discomfort from routine classroom activities with sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, Harvard is still reeling from last year’s results to its own campus climate survey, which found a startlingly high prevalence of sexual harassment on campus, particularly among graduate students. With seemingly different conclusions nationally and on campus, integrating the conclusions of these two reports is crucial.

Campus cultures across the United States have undergone a remarkable shift in recent years. Growing numbers of students have insisted that University administrators create “safe spaces” and demanded that their professors provide trigger warnings before asking them to engage with potentially unsettling content. The examples cited in the AAUP report clearly illustrate several ways that this movement can be taken to extremes. Yet at the same time, it is clear that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem on university campuses.

The study’s findings—particularly the notion that female professors in women’s and gender studies have been among the primary victims of sexual harassment claims related to their coursework—deserve to be taken seriously. (Some of the study’s authors are themselves leading names in the field). As this movement to make college campuses safer moves forward, it is important to consult the professors who helped spawn the undertaking.

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As we work together to solve this problem, we must listen to and respect the voices of all those involved, including students who raise complaints that at first may seem tenuous. Even if we disagree vigorously with some of the most extreme claims of sexual harassment as we see them described in newspaper articles, we should restrain our impulse to label them "silly" or “ridiculous" without examining the facts of the cases in question.

To jump to conclusions on a subject of this delicacy is nearly always to miss the point. Administrations fail in their responsibility to protect academic freedom when they respond by revising the curricula, punishing the professor, or even allowing student pressure to harm a professor’s reputation. Instead, administrators must work to strike a balance between open discourse and accommodating students. Oftentimes, the problem can be resolved with simple measures like trigger warnings and more clearly written syllabi.

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