This summer, Harvard adopted the first University-wide Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and created a new, centralized body — the Office of Dispute Resolution — to investigate incidents of sexual misconduct. Each School at Harvard is undertaking the process of incorporating the University-wide policy and procedures into its individual standards and protocols.
To accomplish this task at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), History Professor Alison Johnson is leading a committee of students, faculty, and staff from across the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Division of Continuing Education. The FAS committee is hosting a series of open meetings in the coming weeks in an effort to get broad input from the entire FAS community that will inform the final School-based policy and procedures. The Gazette recently sat down with Johnson to discuss the committee’s work.
GAZETTE: Recently, there has been a lot of national attention brought to the issue of sexual misconduct and other forms of gender discrimination on campus, not just here at Harvard, but at colleges and universities across the country, generating a lot of debate and emotion. Why have you taken an interest in this topic and agreed to take on this work with the committee?
JOHNSON: There are so many reasons. The first is that Dean [Michael D.] Smith asked me to chair this committee, and given that it is such an important issue, my commitment to University service was enough for me to say yes. The second is that I am a teacher, and along with every other officer of the University, I have a foundational obligation to provide for the education of students at Harvard. Sexual harassment of any form interferes with students’ ability to concentrate on their core mission at Harvard: learning.
I am also a mother who lives with five children. My stepdaughter will be heading off to college in three years, followed shortly by my son and stepson, then my daughter and eventually my littlest boy. Like any parent, I want them all to be safe, and secure, and able to look back on their years in college as a time of privileged devotion to the life of the mind.
Lastly, I am a woman in my 40s who herself lived through college, and graduate school, and years of professional work both within and outside of academia, and I’ve had my fair share of exposure, both direct and indirect, to how devastating sexual harassment can be. All of our students, all of our faculty, all of our staff can do better, more creative, more innovative work when their minds are free from the effects of harassment.
GAZETTE: While this is a national issue, why is this issue important for Harvard?
JOHNSON: Our students work very hard to get into Harvard. Our professors — and indeed all our employees — worked very hard to get their jobs and work even harder to keep them. We are lucky to be here, and we shouldn’t let that good fortune be compromised. Having a strong, fair, reliable, and wisely enforced policy and procedures — including protections for those who have been affected by harassment and due process for those accused of harassment — allows all members of our community to focus on what they are here to do. And I believe the work we do here at Harvard is important work.
GAZETTE: Your committee is charged with examining issues of sexual misconduct and other forms of gender discrimination for Harvard College and the rest of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. What is the scope of work for your committee?
JOHNSON: Over the summer the University announced a sexual and gender-based harassment policy that takes effect this academic year. That policy applies to everyone at Harvard, including the FAS. The University also announced new procedures for addressing alleged violations of that policy, which apply to all students at Harvard. But individual Schools, including FAS, retain responsibility for discipline, as well as responsibility for handling allegations of sexual or gender-based harassment committed by anyone who is not a student. These responsibilities are the focus of the work of my committee. I hope my colleagues on the faculty recognize this as an issue that touches all of us, as teachers and scholars, and will give us the benefit of their perspectives. While our committee works toward a final version of the policy and procedures this fall, the FAS will operate under an Interim Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy.
GAZETTE: How do the activities of your committee intersect with other University efforts, such as the working group that developed the University-wide policy and procedures or the task force led by former Provost Steven E. Hyman?
JOHNSON: A working group developed the University-wide policy and procedures that we now have in hand. In the FAS, our committee is working, and will continue to work, on updating the FAS sexual misconduct and disciplinary policies in alignment with the new University-wide policy and procedures.
But policies and procedures can only go so far. They are fundamentally reactive, and describe what the University prohibits and how it responds to violations. Even if our response to sexual harassment could be perfect — we would far prefer to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place. The Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault that President [Drew] Faust created this spring, therefore, aims to develop a nuanced understanding of the scope of the problem of sexual violence as it exists across Harvard University, and to inspire, guide, and coordinate efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate sexual violence. It is more concerned with culture, with norms, expectations, and attitudes, and less concerned with policy. As it happens, I also serve on the task force and co-chair its communications subcommittee with Stephanie Khurana, and I welcome anyone with ideas for the task force to get in touch with me.
GAZETTE: Much of the national attention to this issue has focused on its impact on undergraduate students. What role do students have in your committee’s work?
JOHNSON: There are four students on our committee: two graduate students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) and two undergraduates from the College. They are full and equal members of the committee, and their perspective as students is critical to our conversations and our decision-making. But there are nearly 6,700 undergraduates in the College and more than 4,000 graduate students in GSAS — we couldn’t possibly expect any small group of students to be “representative” of the diversity of opinions of an entire student body. That is why we have organized so many different open meetings with students in September and another on Oct. 1 — so that we can hear from as many people as possible, without expecting our student committee members to act as intermediaries between the committee and the student body. Their only job is to represent themselves — as students — and to share their unique perspectives with us just like every other committee member does.
GAZETTE: In addition to students, what roles can other members of the Harvard community play as your committee conducts its business?
JOHNSON: We need as much feedback from our community as possible. There are many different facets to the issue of sexual misconduct at Harvard. It is an issue that affects all of us either indirectly or directly. We hope students will come to one of the seven meetings scheduled throughout September and the one on Oct. 1. Anyone who wishes to contact us without speaking in public can reach us at an email address we have established for this purpose: firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, we are creating a Web page for faculty to engage in an open discussion of the interim policy and procedures and what kind of changes should be considered for the final version.
GAZETTE: What will be the focus of the committee’s work over the next several months and what do you hope the end result will be?
JOHNSON: As I said, we will be holding a number of open meetings for students, as well as soliciting feedback from faculty and staff. I hope everyone with concerns, advice, questions — any kind of thoughts about preventing and responding to sexual misconduct at all — will find a way to communicate those thoughts to the committee. We will devote October and November to writing a proposal for a final FAS policy and procedures to submit to Dean Smith for his consideration. I hope all this work will be done by winter recess — but of course we have to be prepared to spend as much time on the task as it requires. It is my hope the end result will be an FAS policy and procedures that are transparent, fair, easy to understand, consistent with the University policy and procedures and similar enough to other Schools’ policies and procedures to work effectively in a complicated social and professional environment in which relationships cross School boundaries. I hope every member of our community will know that we can all expect to be treated with consideration, empathy, and caring if we find ourselves in the position of making a complaint but also that we will be treated with fairness, transparency, and due process if a complaint is made against us.
And I hope that the clarity of our policy and the fairness of our procedures help generate many productive conversations about what kind of behavior is consistent with the community we wish to maintain and create at Harvard — conversations that ultimately move us toward a university environment free of harassment.