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September 17, 1998

SEXUAL HARASSMENT How Pitt handles cases of "He said — She said"

In the movie "Horse Feathers," Groucho Marx, playing Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, is annoyed at the behavior of Chico and Harpo Marx, portraying students in his classroom. Groucho says to an attractive female student in the front row: "You, stay after class." She replies, "But, Professor, I didn't do anything." Groucho, with trademark bobbing eyebrows, says, "I know. But it's no fun keeping them after class." That was 1932. Audiences laughed then — and may still laugh at the scene now. But in the real-life classrooms of today, it's not funny. It's verbal sexual harassment and a violation of Pitt's policy with potentially serious consequences.

In the University's official policy on sexual harassment, last amended in June 1997, faculty members (and teaching or graduate assistants) are prohibited from having intimate, defined as "sexual and/or romantic," relations with a student whose academic work, teaching or research is being supervised or evaluated by the faculty member. In fact, should a relationship develop, the University requires the faculty member to remove himself or herself from all formal advisory roles with respect to the student, under threat of disciplinary action. This amended language replaced terminology that a faculty/student relationship was viewed as "extremely unwise." The policy also states that personal relationships must not be allowed to interfere with the academic or professional integrity of the staff-student, supervisor-employee or any other professional relationships within the University. Such interference is likewise subject to disciplinary action, ranging from a warning to dismissal from the University, depending upon the severity of the offense. Pitt first put into place a policy on sexual harassment in October 1986, establishing a formal definition and procedures to resolve complaints, both of which remain largely intact today. (See box for policy statement.) Any faculty member, staff employee or student who believes he or she has been sexually harassed should contact a department chair, dean, director, supervisor, the Office of Affirmative Action, the Office of Human Resources, the Office of the Provost, or the coordinator of the University Student Judicial System. The complaint will be handled either by the person or office receiving the complaint or it may be referred to the Office of Affirmative Action. In no case may it be ignored, according to "Guidelines and Responsibilities for University Administrators" regarding sexual harassment complaints.

According to 1997 guidelines, established by the Provost's Sexual Harassment Task Force, when an administrator or supervisor receives a complaint, the proper first response is oral or written communication with the person whose action the complainant found offensive. If that does not resolve the matter, an investigation must be undertaken. If, after investigation, it is found that the complaint is without reasonable foundation, the parties are informed that no further action is warranted. A record of the findings and the action taken is to be kept in the unit that handled the complaint.

If an individual is found to have violated the University's policy against sexual harassment, steps are to be taken to stop the harassment and the violator is subject to disciplinary sanctions.

Retaliation in any form is forbidden, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, and could lead to more severe disciplinary sanctions.

Elaine Y. Frampton, assistant director, Office of Affirmative Action, has been handling sexual harassment complaints at Pitt for 13 years. "The first thing I ask a person who comes with a concern is 'What's the issue?' said Frampton. "But I caution the person against using any names. Let's discuss the problem without a name: Is it behavior, is it verbal, just what is it? I'll ask, 'What do you think the person's motivation is? Is the person aware of your discomfort? Is this typical behavior the person does with others that you know of?'" Discussing a concern without using a name is an important consideration, because as soon as an allegation against a person is made, the Office of Affirmative Action is required under University policy and federal law to investigate it, and to notify the alleged harasser that a complaint has been made. "If we're just talking hypothetically, or a person asks for advice or information, I might just take notes. But when there are specific details, we create a file and begin an investigation," Frampton said.

Another important reason for anonymity, according to Frampton, is to protect everyone involved in the case. "Probably the biggest misconception people have had over the years is that they automatically think we are their advocates. Really, we are advocates for due process. We are neutral," she said. Until an investigation establishes that behavior has risen to the level of sexual harassment, all parties are on equal footing in the eyes of the law, she said.

Attorney John G. Greeno, assistant vice chancellor for employee and labor relations in the Office of Human Resources, concurred. "We take all allegations seriously. We investigate all allegations. But our obligation is not to be an advocate; we are, rather, representatives of the University. Or, a better way to put it: In the event we conclude there is wrongdoing, then we will respond accordingly. We will take whatever steps are necessary to end the harassment. That's really our ultimate goal: to eliminate it," Greeno said.

According to Frampton, every effort is made to protect the privacy of all parties, but confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. "When the accused harasser is notified of a complaint, he or she sometimes knows right away who complained by what the complaint is. It's very difficult to guarantee confidentiality," she said. There are also times during an investigation when witnesses or those familiar with the situation need to be involved, and information gets out, she said. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in the case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin, also covered sexual harassment. The court's opinion, authored by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that sexual harassment that was so pervasive as to create a hostile or abusive work environment is a form of sex discrimination.

In subsequent rulings, the court has broadened its interpretation to establish two classifications of sexual harassment, so-called quid pro quo behavior and evidence of an offensive environment. It also established the concept of "a reasonable person" in judging whether behavior amounts to sexual harassment. According to Frampton, perception is a key element. "I have to determine the impact of an alleged harasser's behavior on the alleged victim," she said. "Are actions or remarks unwelcome, sexual in nature, causing a hostile environment? Are actions inappropriate or do they appear to rise to the level of harassment? Each case is different. The Supreme Court also said to look for frequency, severity, patterns and effects of the behavior. There are some gray areas; for example, an alleged harasser may not know the behavior is harassing, but could still be guilty of it." Intent is not the issue; it's the behavior itself and its effects that count. According to Greeno, this is where the "reasonable person" criterion is applied. "Would a reasonable person find this or that behavior offensive is the question to ask," he said.

Every effort is made to resolve a situation informally, according to Frampton. "When a complaint is made, I give the person options: You can tell the individual directly you don't like the behavior; you can write a letter to the individual; or you can have another person go with you to talk to the individual, to be a mediator. I offer to do that myself, if it will help the person feel comfortable. They may want to have another person intercede for them. I've done that, too. "Sometimes that resolves the problem. The person was ignorant that the behavior was offensive and just stops it. But I also urge the alleged victim to document as much as possible: times, dates, what was said or done, was anybody else present, and so on. This is really important, so it's not just a 'he said, she said' situation." If a problem cannot be resolved through informal attempts at conciliation and the complainant wishes to pursue the matter further, he or she must file a formal written complaint. Such complaints can be filed directly with Affirmative Action for submission to the University's Sexual Harassment Board. Or complaints may be filed according to the existing grievance procedures for faculty, staff or students, whichever apply. (Existing grievance procedures are described in the following publications, which are available in the Office of the Provost: "University of Pittsburgh — Faculty Reviews and Appeals Principles and Procedures," "Employee Inquiry and Complaint Procedures," "University of Pittsburgh — Guidelines on Academic Integrity" and "University of Pittsburgh Code of Conduct and Judicial Procedures.") The Sexual Harassment Board is appointed by the chancellor on advice of the provost, the senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences and the assistant chancellor for Business and Administration. The board consists of three individuals, two of whom (one faculty member and one staff member) are appointed for three-year terms. One member, representing the com-plainant's faculty, staff or student status, is appointed upon receipt of a formal complaint.

The board must investigate complaints filed with it and convey its findings and recommendations to the appropriate dean or director within 90 days. Copies of board findings are provided to the complainant, the accused and the Office of Affirmative Action.

A dean or director then must take action within 30 days of receiving the recommendations of the board. The complainant, the accused, the administrator receiving the original complaint and the Office of Affirmative Action are to be informed of the specific action taken.

Findings of the board and sanctions imposed by a dean or director may be appealed by any party to the complaint. Within 30 days of the presentation of finding and/or imposition of a sanction, appeals must be submitted in writing to the appropriate senior officer of the University, i.e., the provost or senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences in complaints where a faculty member is the accused, the assistant chancellor for Business and Administration in complaints where a staff member is the accused, or the vice chancellor for Student Affairs in complaints where a student is the accused. The senior officer then has 30 days to respond to the appeal. All such appeals to a senior officer are final.

While every instance of sexual harassment is serious, the problem is not necessarily widespread at Pitt, according to Greeno. "There are perhaps unreported cases, of course," he said. "But awareness levels are rising in society in general and, I think, here at Pitt. I think people are more likely to speak out now, if they see a problem." The influx of women in the workplace, the demise of the "good ol' boy network" and even sometimes-maligned political correctness are contributing factors, he said.

Greeno reported a rough estimate of 10-12 cases a year investigated through Human Resources. With a faculty and staff of more than 8,000 plus the student population, that doesn't seem like a high number, he said. Frampton estimated about five to seven cases a year are handled through Affirmative Action. "The highest year was after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings [1992] when we had about 10 to 15," she said. "I also think we're making a tremendous effort to educate people here," Greeno said. "We want to step up training for supervisors and deans, for example. Mandated training is under discussion now." The University offers occasional workshops on sexual harassment, prints informational brochures on the subject and provides counseling services, in addition to the formal policy and procedures. (See below for more information.) In the language of the policy, "all complaints are given serious, impartial and timely consideration."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 2

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