U of S : Communications : OCN : Sep 5, 1997


A debate on what should be the universities' approach
to the issue of sexual harassment

Over the summer, the sexual harassment case involving Simon Fraser University swimming coach Liam Donnelly and 22-year-old student Rachel Marsden got a lot of play in the media.

On the July 20 broadcast of Sunday Report, CBC-TV carried a debate on the controversy between Judy Rebick, co-host of CBC Newsworld's Face Off, and John Fekete, a Trent University professor and author of Moral Panic, a book on sexual harassment policies in universities.

The Donnelly/Marsden case - which boiled down largely to a he-said/she-said contentiousness but also involved e-mailings to Donnelly from Marsden and 'a personal relationship' between Marsden and former SFU harassment policy coordinator Patricia O'Hagan - saw the reinstatement of the defendant's job by the SFU board of directors, who followed the recommendation of a mediator in the controversial episode.

SFU president John Stubbs, now on administrative leave, supported the initial firing of Donnelly. His successor, David Gagan, questioned the justice of Donnelly's dismissal and wrote a critical report on the University's handling of the affair.

Because the Sunday Report debate epitomizes the respective sides in the debate (regarding both the SFU matter and sexual harassment generally), we thought it worthwhile to re-present them here, for those who missed the July 20 broadcast.*

CBC -TV's Diana Swain conducted the interview, as follows:


SWAIN: To talk about how universities should deal with sexual harassment, our panel. John Fekete is a professor at Trent University in Ontario and the author of a book on sexual harassment policies in universities. He's in Toronto tonight. Also in Toronto, Judy Rebick, co -host of CBC Newsworld's Face Off.

SWAIN: John, let me start with you. You've written a book called Moral Panic. Is that what you feel is gripping universities as they deal with this?

FEKETE: Diana, there is some kind of phenomenon in universities which is well in excess of the phenomenon they're dealing with The levels of concern and the levels of intensity in these proceedings is out of touch with the amount of actual harm that's been demonstrated. And the procedures that have been developed to speak to that heightened anxiety are so deeply flawed that they appear to be generating abuse after abuse on campus after campus.

SWAIN: Judy, would you agree that these policies are deeply flawed -that they're rooted in panic?

REBICK: Not at all. In fact they're working quite well. We have sexual harassment policies now in most campuses in the country and most of them are dealing with harassment cases and other similar cases very well. In fact, 90 per cent of the cases are resolved informally through mediation, which I think is the proper way to deal with a lot of these cases. And we've had a dramatic reduction of the kind of stories about sexual harassment, particularly from professors to students, that we used to hear about when I was a student, and even 10 or 15 years ago.

So I think that it's really for some reason in British Columbia where these cases have gotten very politicized, like the one we're dealing with now and on campus in general, the sexual harassment polices work quite well. They're set up very similar to human rights cases and human rights procedure. That's that the weight of evidence is balance of probability. It doesn't have to be beyond a shadow of a doubt when there is a disciplinary hearing. The problem in the SFU case was that the coach -who was accused not of sexual harassment but in fact of date rape -refused to come to the hearing. So if you're in a disciplinary situation at a job and you refuse to come to the hearing where charges are being heard, I mean it seems to me it's hard to claim that you're a victim after that.

FEKETE: Diana, I don't want to comment too deeply on the Simon Fraser case because the evidence in fact is not available yet to many of us. We haven't seen the reports or the documents in the case. It is clear that the coach refused to testify before that hearing panel on lawyer's advice. Quite often these panels in universities are amateur panels; they run kangaroo courts; they fail to deliver due process to all parties; and cannot protect the interests and provide fair play to the respondents. They use barn door definitions [and] they fail to identify the misconduct to which an answer is to be made.

REBICK: I don't agree with that at all, John. I've looked at numerous sexual harassment policies on campuses right across the country and in general, the policies are quite well -defined. What's more, the sexual harassment office often tries -as I said, and in 90 per cent of the cases -resolves the cases between the parties through mediation. So every once in a while we have one of these sensational cases and in this case, although we haven't seen the evidence, I agree with that.

Nevertheless the body of three people, who are very highly trained -they're not lawyers, that's true. But I think if you set up a situation where you say they have to be lawyers or that's what you mean by professional, you're going to set up a situation that's way too expensive for the university to handle it. I mean, we have these kinds of harassment procedures in the workplace all over the country and they're working quite well. And I think in most campuses they're also working.

SWAIN: John, Judy says that the policies are well -defined but I get the sense from looking at your book that you feel the opposite. That they're not well -defined -that no one's entirely sure what sexual harassment is.

FEKETE: Diana, I documented 17 cases of gross institutional abuse in which universities function like little more than institutional forms of vigilante justice. When you have a professor who is subject to a harassment hearing of several months because a student believes that a grade she's gotten is too high and therefore expects in her fantasies that the professor will be looking for sexual favors -this is a case incidentally where the harassment hearing finally found that there was no evidence to support these allegations or these anxieties, but nevertheless the professor was drawn through these procedures for several months at great cost to his career and to his stamina, an untenured professor. When, in another part of the country on the other coast, a professor is dragged through harassment hearings because he wrote an article criticizing certain fundamentalist aspects of feminism. Over in the middle of the country, a professor is dragged through several years of harassment hearings, which again wind up exonerating her simply because she gave a grammar class to which a student took objection, where she used an example given by the student reflecting poorly on the Ayatollah Khomeni's regime.

SWAIN: But are these the exceptions or the rule?

REBICK: Yeah of course. First of all they are the exceptions. But second of all in each of these cases, these people have been exonerated. We have [similar] cases in our criminal justice system. We just had two cases, where people have been convicted of murder unjustly [but] we don't throw out the whole criminal justice system because it makes mistakes. In these cases...

FEKETE: It calls the administration of justice into disrepute when it's possible to document 17 such cases in Canadian universities over a period of three or four years of reputable academics of all persuasions from right to left, male or female, who are put through procedures of several years at great cost to them having to employ lawyers, having to face the stigma [in] their lives, the damage to their careers -and when they have to be exonerated by outside parties outside of the university...

REBICK: John, you know at University of Toronto last year for example, there were 200 charges of sexual harassment, okay. And so you're talking about 17 over all the years that there has been harassment policies. And one or two of the ones that you mentioned I think were valid, like against Professor Yaksan, which was a professor who wrote in the university newspaper that date rape was caused because young men couldn't control themselves and basically almost wrote an article in favor of date rape. I mean, that kind of thing -it's a difference of opinion on whether that's valid for disciplinary procedures or not. But the point being in most cases these procedures are working well.

And the other question I have is: What is the alternative to these kind of procedures? The only alternative is either to let professors go on harassing students or secondly to go to criminal court, where the burden of proof is so high as to be completely untenable.

FEKETE: First of all, professors on the whole are not harassing students. Secondly...

REBICK: You deny that in the past we had a problem with professors harassing students?

FEKETE: Most of the cases of harassment charges...

REBICK: You deny that there was a problem, that there's been a problem, of many professors -and not the isolated case thinking -that it's okay to have affairs with their students...

FEKETE: I don't know what the level or rate of these kinds of charges is because most of them happen in secret and we don't get descriptive accounts of what happens in them. One of the ways in which universities are failing their constituencies is that they're failing to educate the university community as to what kinds of cases they think they're dealing with and what kind of remedies need to be applied. Precisely because the cases go on in secret and they're not accountable.

But the point that I want to make -now let me make it -is that the vast majority of complaints of harassment are not in fact students against professors and not in fact about abuses of authority, are certainly and absolutely definitely not cases of extortion or sex for grades or general corruption of that kind, but happen to be cases among peers, student to student, and they're mostly in a situation where the university is meddling in the manners and in the interactions of students who are not in fact employees...

SWAIN: Unfortunately, John, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks to you both for your time. It's a good discussion.

BOTH: Thank you.


*Transcript provided by Bowden's Transcripts, Toronto.


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