Sexual Harassment Prevention: Optional?

The headline here is self-explanatory. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Professor Risks Job by Refusing to Be Trained in Preventing Sexual Harassment

Here are the first few lines of the story.

A molecular biologist at the University of California at Irvine faces the possibility of being put on unpaid leave because he won’t attend training sessions on preventing sexual harassment, the Orange County Register reported.

Such training, Alexander McPherson told the newspaper, is a “sham,” and he has consistently refused to take it because, among other things, it “violated my rights as a tenured professor” and “cast a shadow of suspicion on my reputation and career.”

The university says a 2004 state law, Assembly Bill 1825, requires two hours of training in sexual-harassment prevention every two years for supervisors at businesses that regularly employ 50 or more people. If Mr. McPherson, 64, doesn’t take the training by November 12, he could be placed on unpaid leave from a job that pays nearly $150,000, the paper reported.

A lot of the debate in the Comments section of the Chronicle page have focused on just how useful or useless such training might be. Some chalked the requirement to have such a course as silly political correctness. Others suggest that even though preventing sexual harassment is a good thing, courses of this kind are / are likely to be / usually are / have a history of being silly wastes of time, given their style. After all, how much good can a 2-hour on-line course really do?

All of which, of course, totally misses the point. Whether the course is effective or not is mostly irrelevant, here. I mean, I hope the course is useful; at very least, it puts sexual harassment on people’s ‘radar screens.’ But the question here is really whether this professor’s employer — a business that falls within the purview of Bill 1825 — is justified in requiring the professor (and all its other employees) to take the course. And of course, the university is justified. If it wants to have its employees spend 2 hours on something significantly less important than sexual harassment awareness, it can do that. If employees disagree strongly about the waste of time, they can (together) put their case to management. The university has the authority to have some say over how its employees spend some of their time. Universities (and other businesses) have a legitimate interest in a range of restrictions on the way employees behave & spend their time while at work. This isn’t a matter of usefulness, but of authority. (Disagree, if you will, about whether the employer has that authority, in this case, but please see that that is where the issue lies.)

Professors, one might say, are not exactly typical employees. We are accorded exceptional freedoms within our work (we claim something called “academic freedom,” and the lucky ones among us get tenure) so that we can seek truth & beauty without being hassled by the Man. But it’s pretty hard to see anything in a mandatory-for-everyone course on the dangers of a serious social problem that jeopardizes that.

1 comment so far

  1. Suresh Kumar G on

    I do agree with you on the fact that undergoing such a program need not jeopardize your freedom. I too teach at a B-School and I would like to take the opportunity to set the example whenever the opportunity arises. This is, I think, similar to celebrities donating their eyes, although on their death, the eyes are not removed unless insisted on by the relatives.A Professor is a highly visible personality and it is also politically correct to bend to the rule.


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