Free speech faces hostile environment An aggressive hunt for sex harassment leaves plenty of wreckage

February 11, 1996|By Kenneth Lasson

In recent years there has been a noticeable upsurge in allegations of sexual harassment on campus, due in part ot the large number of colleges and universities (many of them public) that have imposed sweeping speech and language codes -- which in turn reflect exceedingly broad interpretations of what the law now calls a "hostile environment."

At Pennsylvania State University, for example, an English instructor claimed she was being sexually harassed by the presence of Goya's famous painting "Naked Maja" in a university lecture hall. "Any picture of a nude female," she said, "encourages males to make remarks about body parts." Although the painting had been hanging on the same classroom wall for at least a decade, it was removed as the result of her complaint.

At the University of Michigan, a student taking American politics was chastised for writing a paper in which he conjured up a polling example featuring a fictitious chauvinist named "Dave Stud." A female teaching assistant found it to be contrary to the department's "Checklist for Non-sexist Writing," and threatened sanctions.

The University of Connecticut has banned all "inappropriate laughter" and "conspicuous exclusion of students from conversations." (What if a classmate has bad breath?) Harvard prohibits "unwelcome speech whose "effect might create an "offensive educational environment." (Who decides?)

Of greater concern, perhaps, is what happens to unwittingly incorrect professors who find themselves accused of sexual harassment.

Take the case of James Maas, who has been teaching at Cornell University for more than 30 years and whose Psychology 101 is perhaps the largest undergraduate course in the country (attracting about 1,000 students every semester). He was won numerous teaching awards. In 1994, Mr. Maas was called before Cornell's "Professional Ethics Committee" to defend himself against charges of sexual harassment. The allegations centered around his "overly friendly and affectionate behavior" -- which, it turns out, were hugs and occasional social kisses, most often in front of class or family.

A "confidential" investigation ensued. Mr. Maas strongly denied any wrongdoing. He was found guilty as charged, and reprimanded. During the entire spring semester of 1995, however, the Cornell Daily Sun ran stories and cartoons depicting him as a sexual aggressor and took the university to task for not firing him. The affair soon found its way into the New York Times, Time magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and was sent out over at least one wire service.

By this time Mr. Maas felt that his reputation had been grievously and unfairly damaged and he sued the university for $1.5 million. His case is pending.

So is that of John Aist, a science professor at Cornell who was sanctioned for having the temerity to voice his opinion that homosexuality is a treatable disorder. Cornell, in fact, keeps a "locked box" of informal complaints lodged against faculty. Professors are not informed that such a file exists, much less told about potential grievances bubbling up against them. If a student decides to press formal charges against an alleged offender -- even years after the fact -- the box is opened and its contents examined.

Many professors, feeling the chill of PC (political correctness) blowing through the Ivory Tower, guard their every comment and gesture. Those who find themselves already caught in webs spun by overzealous students and administrators, ever on the lookout for hostile environments, quietly resign themselves to various forms of censure and fade back into academic anonymity. The few who dare to challenge the system face years of litigation which for the most part they are less prepared to undertake than the institutions seeking to sanction them.

The most notable example of a professor who stood his ground against sexual-harassment charges is J. Donald Silva, a tenured member of the English faculty at the University of New Hampshire. A student in his technical writing course had asked for an example of a "working definition." Mr. Silva offered a word-picture that he had used many times before. "Belly dancing," he said, is "like a plate of Jell-O with a vibrator underneath." Within days the professor stood accused of sexual harassment. Shortly thereafter he was suspended from his job, ordered to pay the university $2,000 for a replacement teacher, and directed to undergo psychological counseling with a university-approved therapist.

Mr. Silva chose instead to file suit in federal court, arguing that dismissal of a tenured professor on the basis of statements made in class violates principles of academic freedom, federal statutes, and the First Amendment. "I am not sick," he said, "and I am not going to give up my right to trial."

The court minced few words in ordering that he be reinstated. New Hampshire, which already expended close to $200,000 in legal fees, settled with Mr. Silva for another $250,000.

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