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Harassment charges: Metoo but due process

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Science  17 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6403, pp. 656
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau7986

The resignation of eminent biologist Francisco J. Ayala amid charges of sexual harassment (“Prominent geneticist out at UC Irvine after harassment finding,” M. Wadman, News, 29 June, https://scim.ag/AyalaResignation) has left Ayala's home campus deeply divided. The controversy highlights problems in the way universities currently address charges of sexual harassment. Because the University of California, Irvine (UCI), failed to post easily accessible guidelines on how the Ayala case was handled, especially how and by whom final decisions were made, many UCI faculty are concerned that the university overreached, imposing a punishment not commensurate with the specific charges of wrongdoing. A zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment should include clearly stated procedures to protect due process and ensure proportional responses to wrongdoing.

I will not engage in the ugly nastiness of “he said, she said” as we debate the veracity of accusations described in salacious detail (“Report details harassment by famed biologist,” M. Wadman, News In Depth, 27 July, p. 316). These are human tragedies evolving in front of us. Victims strive to regain lost self-esteem, along with justice. The accused wrestle with shock, forced to confront their own cluelessness at shifting mores, and everyone realizes how vulnerable we all are, including administrators struggling to figure out how best to fairly confront sexual harassment and gender equality. We are all at risk when goodwill and communications break down.

To fairly and equitably strike a balance between complacency and overreaction, I recommend three procedures to help achieve the notoriously difficult goal of changing attitudes toward gender. First, we must do more to foster a university climate that takes seriously and protects potential targets, be they male or female. Part of that is recognizing that even subtle forms of verbal behavior—i.e., jokes or comments about appearance—make some women and minorities uncomfortable. Yet resulting deferential treatment can contribute to a climate in which women or minorities are treated differently. Eventually, this subtle, differential treatment can foster continuing inequality. Second, we must insist that legally correct policies and procedures are followed when charges of sexual harassment are made. These procedures need to be transparent and the same for all faculty. Policies should be written in prose that even nonlawyers can understand and posted in obvious places, with regularly scheduled discussion forums designed to help educate all members of the university community. Third, the punishment must fit the crime. If tasteless, off-color jokes and the kind of ambiguous “unwanted touching” of which Ayala was accused warrant his public humiliation, what do we do with more serious charges of sexual harassment? And why is Hana Ayala punished for her husband's acts by having her name removed from gifts to UCI?

The #Metoo movement has done a great service in opening up an area too long taboo. But the failure to follow clearly established, fairly administered, and transparent procedures can too easily produce witch hunts that cast doubts on legitimate charges of sexual harassment. This will set back the move toward gender equality, in the academy and in society at large.

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