The Magazine

BRIEFING FOR A DESCENT INTO HELL

Jan 15, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 17 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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Cornell University was the setting for one of the most notorious episodes of campus upheaval during the great era of campus upheavals in the late 1960s. Armed students took over the student union building in the spring of 1969, while thousands of other students rallied in their support. Top university administrators persuaded an anxious faculty senate to capitulate to student demands for the sake of peace. A quarter century later, Cornell administrators are still buying peace, though the threat to their peace is very much changed. These days the main challenge comes from feminism. Feminists do not carry guns. They wield charges of "sexual harassment."


Cornell's experience is, to be sure, merely an instance in a larger trend. On campuses throughout the nation, "gender issues" have eclipsed all the old activ ist causes. Cornell's nervous administrators, too, have their counterparts thro ughout higher education. But Cornell activism seems a bit more flamboyant and i ts administrators a bit more cowed and craven. As in the 1960s -- when Cornell was one of the rare places where activists finally took to guns -- the latest C ornell s tory gives some telling examples of how dangerous things can get when university officials try to play it safe.


So, in recent years, Cornell officials have allowed feminist activists to define "sexual harassment" in startlingly broad terms. I was made to understand this at the outset of this trend, when I gave a lecture in my constitutional law course on "privacy" cases, including the 1987 Supreme Court ruling refusing to strike down Georgia's law against sodomy. In response to a question, I ventured a few words in explanation of why voters in Georgia or elsewhere may support such laws even though they are never enforced. Within two weeks I received a letter from a feminist colleague, an officially designated "sexual harassment counselor," informing me that some unnamed students had complained that my remarks were insulting to homosexuals. She notified me that, on the basis of the students' account of what I had said, she had concluded that my lecture had created a "hostile work environment" for students and was therefore within the campus definition of sexual harassment. Fortunately for me, no punitive action was taken. But I was put on notice: I was under surveillance.


This can be a somewhat unnerving experience. Four years ago, the faculty of Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences (or rather the activist rump of the faculty that rallies for official meetings) adopted a set of procedures for dealing with complaints of harassment. To reassure complainants against retaliation, these procedures allow complaints to be stored in a "locked file" by faculty harassment counselors, with no notification of the accused professor. Then at some later time -- which may be quite a few years later, as there is no statute of limitations--the faculty harassment counselors may activate these complaints, along with others that may have accumulated, and slam the unsuspecting professor with formal charges based on a "long history" of "harassment."


What is most remarkable about this system is that the harassment counselors will not reveal anything about the files to a professor inquiring about his standing, not even whether the harassment counselors do have files on that nervous professor. The FBI is required to share its files with citizens who inquire about what information it has gathered about them. But Cornell's faculty harassment counselors maintain that even abstracted summaries of their files might be used by devious professors to figure out which students had complained about them and then retaliate against those students.


Quite a few professors worry about what may be in those files. One male professor was badgered so persistently by a mentally unbalanced female student that he obtained a court order against her, requiring her to keep her distance. She then charged him with sexual harassment. No formal sanctions were imposed in the end, but he worries, understandably, about how this has been written up in the secret files. Another male professor, in a different department, was troubled by repeated sexual overtures from a female student who had signed up to write a senior thesis under his direction. The professor told her to find another adviser. She charged him with "sexual harassment." Again, no punishment was levied, but how the episode was written up in the secret files is something the harassment counselors refuse to divulge.