Soapbox

UC must have zero tolerance for sexual harassment

A committee appointed by University of California President Janet Napolitano, above, to recommend improvements in UC’s sexual harassment policies involving faculty has proved ineffective, Anke Schennink says.
A committee appointed by University of California President Janet Napolitano, above, to recommend improvements in UC’s sexual harassment policies involving faculty has proved ineffective, Anke Schennink says. The Associated Press

The recent rash of sexual harassment cases coming out of the University of California is shocking to many, but it’s not a surprise to UC postdoctoral researchers.

It’s more common than anyone would like to admit for professors – usually men – to harass graduate students and postdoctoral researchers – usually women – under their supervision. These harassers use the power they have over their victims’ reputations and careers to enforce silence.

Postdocs have already earned their Ph.D.s and are often working at the cutting edge of their fields, mostly in science, technology, engineering and math. Addressing sexual harassment by professors in these fields is long overdue. In the classroom, it discourages women from pursuing science and engineering. In the workplace, it drives women out of successful careers.

Postdocs have an interdependent relationship with their principal investigator; future job prospects are tied to the research they do together.

If a postdoc resists harassment, a professor has the credibility and power to do more than intimidate or sully a postdoc’s character; he can paint his victim as an incapable researcher, ruining her career. Researchers on guest worker visas – about two-thirds of UC postdocs – are especially vulnerable because their immigration status is tied to their employer.

Of course, the majority of principal investigators are not sexual harassers. Neither are most professors and administrators at UC. But it’s urgent that we fix this serious problem. Our research community will suffer so long as we make excuses for sexual harassment and fail to discipline offenders appropriately.

That is why UC must implement a zero tolerance approach, and handle cases of alleged sexual harassment swiftly and transparently.

Though UC President Janet Napolitano has recently called for reforming how cases of sexual harassment involving senior leaders are handled, past action suggests this is more empty talk. Last October, Napolitano convened a committee to recommend improvements to UC’s sexual harassment policies involving faculty, but the panel has proved ineffective.

UC officials acknowledge that current policies have allowed faculty members, including disgraced astronomer Geoff Marcy, to receive light punishments even after UC investigations found they had committed multiple cases of harassment toward students.

Yet the draft report the committee issued to the Academic Senate in February recommends only minor changes, finding current UC policies are “reasonable,” and brushing away criticisms raised by the Marcy case as mere “misunderstandings.” Inexplicably, the committee has not welcomed input from students and postdoctoral researchers who have been directly affected.

After the sexual harassment scandals at UC Berkeley, the campus finally announced last week that it will start reforming its policies, and Napolitano said Saturday her office will closely monitor progress. But the pronouncement was light on details, and this is only one of 10 UC campuses. It remains unclear whether these will be real changes, or more merely going through the motions.

If UC is serious about reform, it should require the committee to draft a new report – one that proposes concrete, meaningful policy changes. And this new report should be based on broad public comments.

A culture of sexual harassment and assault in our scientific community is antithetical to reaching our full potential in research and discovery and must not be tolerated at UC. We have the chance to set new standards for accountability that can improve our universities and be a model for other institutions.

Anke Schennink is president of UAW Local 5810, the union for UC postdoctoral researchers, and previously worked in the department of animal science at UC Davis. She can be contacted at president@uaw5810.org.

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