Time's Up: Rutgers targets sexual harassment | Editorial

A young woman entering college may have a good understanding of mutual consent, but she is undoubtedly familiar with power plays.

She knows grades are the measure of academic success, and if a faculty member uses that as an incentive or threat during a sexual advance, the student may not immediately run to the faculty advisor or department chair to consult their university handbook. It could take years for her to even admit it, if she can at all.

At Rutgers University, if it takes more than two years to issue a complaint, that student could be out of luck. The school typically didn't investigate older sexual harassment allegations, just to stay consistent with New Jersey's civil statute of limitations.

If you think that policy doesn't stand up to any degree of moral scrutiny, Rutgers has finally come around to your way of thinking.

It may have taken a well-earned media spanking to launch him into action mode, but we welcome Rutgers President Robert Barchi's order to reassess the university's policy toward sexual harassment claims. There is no longer any excuse to run from this issue, as the university did even after six senior women professors asked the Office of Employment Equity to change policies six months ago - particularly the ludicrous two-year expiration date it applied to the investigation of some allegations, which Barchi unilaterally repealed Wednesday. Good riddance to that.

But these educators were rebuffed, before an expose from NJ Advance Media forced Rutgers to address this problem with the rigor it deserves.

Besides the elimination of the time limit, the professors proposed other recommendations. Among them: They suggest referring to victims as "complainants" rather than "witnesses," a nomenclature that had removed their right to know the outcome of a complaint; they call for department chairs to be informed of complaint outcomes to provide a safer student environment; and they demand a reexamination of standards used by the university (which "discourages" romantic relationships) to determine whether advances are "unwelcome."

All excellent ideas.

Judiciously, Barchi also announced the formation of a committee that comprises faculty, staff, and students to address this issue, one that will be guided by a startling report on harassment from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

The Academies estimates that 58 percent of female faculty and staff in all academic disciplines experience harassment; and it endorses a recent Penn State study that found 33 percent of undergraduates and 43 percent of graduate students are victims.

As the NJAM report poignantly illustrates, harassment takes its toll on victims and undermines health and well-being in insidious ways. The Academies hung a lantern on that: The more women are harassed, the more they experience depression, eating disorders, anxiety, headaches, and sleep disruption. One in five sexually-harassed women meet the clinical criteria for depressive disorders. One in 10 suffers from PTSD.

And academic careers can be overwhelmed by such an experience. Students may avoid hostile environments - change advisors or majors, transfer to different labs, drop classes, or drop out altogether. The cumulative effect of harassment is a significant loss of academic talent.

The Academies believes we need a "systemwide change to the culture and climate in higher education," because there is no evidence that current policies have done anything to reduce harassment.

Indeed, this is not merely a college problem or a Rutgers problem. The #MeToo movement has helped expose this as an everywhere problem - it's in your workplace, your church, your political circle, and soon, in 22 percent of your Supreme Court.

The country has allowed a culture of abuse and harassment to exist. In many places, it is not just a few bad apples. It is systemic rot.

Public college campuses are the best places to change this culture - not only because tax dollars control the environment, but as Barchi implied, it's where we reinforce the values that guide the lives of young adults. It's time to exercise that control.

 

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