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Des Moines Register


Nov. 21, 2008

November 21, 2008

Guest column: Colleges must confront issue of sex harassment

BLAIR TINDALL of Los Angeles is a professional musician, book author and Stanford University journalism graduate. Contact: tindallspeak@earthlink.net.

I was shocked on Saturday to learn University of Iowa oboe professor Mark Weiger had killed himself. The news was especially disturbing because sexual-harassment charges filed by Weiger's student Melissa Milligan paralleled my experience at a school 30 years ago.

It also jolted me because I briefly met Weiger when we both participated in a Carnegie Hall solo competition in 1988.

After reading of Weiger's suicide, I reviewed sexual harassment policies at the University of Iowa. I also read about a 1994 case against Weiger and about four felony sexual-solicitation charges against political science professor Arthur Miller, who shot himself to death in August.

The circumstances are troubling and may be a bellwether for other universities. Sexual harassment can derail a young person's education and psychology irrevocably. On the other hand, false accusation can haunt an accused professor for life, denying jobs and damaging personal and professional relationships and reputations.

As a woman who's been student and teacher, I understand both sides of this equation. Similar to what Milligan has alleged, I experienced harassment from an oboe professor who held ultimate control over my education and degree in the 1970s. I felt degraded and violated, while my parents were paying handsome tuition for the privilege. At the time, I felt had no recourse.

Some 20 years later, when teaching journalism at Stanford University, I began to understand the contrasting dilemma many professors face. I was new to classroom teaching and eager to help students individually during office hours. However, a male faculty member drew me aside quietly, urging me to prop open my door and never be alone with a student.

A few days later, I passed his office - door flung open and lights blazing. Inside, one of my 19-year-old undergraduates sat across from him, her legs draped seductively across his desk. He cowered in the farthest corner. The student was talented, and he wanted to help her academically, but not to be misunderstood.

Since I was sexually harassed 30 years ago, many universities have drawn up strict policies, with varied success. Some find the right balance, while too many downplay the problem. Others have been quick on the trigger, taking premature action without investigation.

Possible examples: In August, professor Cal Y. Meyers sued Southern Illinois University at Carbondale over unspecified charges of sexual harassment, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a rights organization for American colleges.

Meyers claimed he was allowed no chance to respond to vague allegations, nor was he provided details regarding their content. In July, another SIUC professor, John Y. Simon, died before he was able to defend himself against similar charges filed in January. Both Meyers and Simon's widow complained bitterly about a lack of due process, the foundation reported.

Another troubling development in sexual-harassment cases involves Internet spin. In the week following Weiger's suicide, both he and Milligan have been vilified in anonymous online comments. Some condemn Weiger, painting him as a monolithic sexist. Others scorn Milligan as a predatory siren. She must now endure this second indignity while pursuing her doctoral studies elsewhere.

What is closer to the truth is that people and relationships are complex, and each should be weighed individually. Universities must set consistent policies governing how faculty, staff and students interact, and then carry them out - no matter how uncomfortable the consequences.

After the charges were filed against Miller, U of I President Sally Mason notified faculty and staff that all of them would be required to complete training on recognizing sexual harassment. Training previously had been required just for supervisors.

Mason said, "While every person is entitled to the presumption of innocence, I want to state strongly and unequivocally that such conduct will not be tolerated. It is profoundly damaging to the students and to the educational process."

The university has a Web site to build awareness about its sexual-harassment policies, and students have designed a new ad campaign focused on respect.

News following Weiger's death has not addressed the U of I's plans for addressing similar cases in the future. A memorial concert was organized for Weiger, and the community was lauded for banding together in the aftermath. U of I spokesman Steve Parrott was quoted as saying the university has had "a run of bad luck lately, but it's not a reflection on what a good education we offer."

Little is clear. What is known: Any school where students feel intimidated and objectified does not provide a positive learning environment. Until colleges develop effective ways of addressing these sensitive situations, neither faculty nor students will be free to learn.