Another Lawsuit at SIUC over Sexual Harassment Allegations

By September 10, 2008

Last month I wrote about two disturbing cases of alleged sexual harassment by longtime professors at Southern Illinois UniversityCarbondale (SIUC). One professor passed away partly because of the stress caused by SIUC’s handling of the allegations, and the other is now suing SIUC. The charges against the second professor, renowned scientist Cal Meyers, were only cobbled together months after Meyers had been banned from campus with no hearing, no chance to respond to the evidence, no statement of evidence, no chance to respond to the accuser, and no notification of a right to appeal. The first professor, eminent historian John Y. Simon, had been treated little better after being locked out of his office, as his widow has pointed out.

Observers have noted that both professors had control over significant university resources: Simon had been executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, and Meyers was director of the multi-million-dollar Meyers Institute in Interdisciplinary Research in Organic and Medicinal Chemistry. "They want my money. They don’t care about me," Meyers told the Daily Egyptian. In the words of the Egyptian, Faculty Association vice president Mary Lamb noted that "many across campus have speculated that the ability to gain control over the [Meyers] institute played a role in the how [sic] the university dealt with the allegations."

Although the faculty had been trying to get SIUC’s sexual harassment policy revised for years, nothing had happened. Formal task force reports had been ignored for over two years. Former SIUC Faculty Association president Marvin Zeman has expressed the outrage felt by many on and off campus:

We believe that if this policy [with the suggested changes] was in place even a year ago, what happened to (the professors) would not have happened…. They’ve been giving us the runaround for two years. Finally, after what happened to Cal Meyers and John Simon, we finally said, OK, we’re going to put this in writing and pursue it because dealing with them informally does not seem to work.

Indeed, SIUC’s sexual harassment policy has been a problem at least since 1998, when Daphne Patai noted in Heterophobia that a brochure explaining the policy said that sexual harassment can be "as subtle as a look."

The policy apparently has even been used willy-nilly against students, such as Alex Kochno, whose e-mail account was suspended this spring after he sent a "misogynistic" e-mail to a non-SIUC website. Chancellor Sam Goldman also "placed a one-half page advertisement in the Daily Egyptian that said the university does not condone such behavior and is looking into the matter." The Egyptian also notes:

Revisions to the code began when seven students were kicked off campus in October 2006 without a hearing. They were not just prohibited from living on campus. They were forbidden from going to classes, right in the middle of a semester they had already paid for, and without even a chance to defend themselves.

On August 25, the Egyptian reported that Frank Williams, chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Courtand president of the Grant Associationwas ready to take the Association away from SIUC; a big step, considering that SIUC had hosted the Association since 1964. Then, the Association sued SIUC and accused SIUC of forgery of Simon’s signature on financial documents.

Yesterday, SIU System President Glenn Poshard finally moved forward on the suggested revisions to the SIUC sexual harassment policy. For Simon, Meyers, and many others, this is too little, too late. Others are warning that despite the characterization of SIUC as a place where the sexual harassment policy is "a crude weapon recklessly wielded by vindictive administrators," sexual harassment is a real phenomenon that universities must address. As the heated debate on campus continues, perhaps it is most important to remember that true harassment is not "as subtle as a look" but is so severe, persistent, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively limits or denies access to the benefits of work or school. Speech codes that simply prohibit "offensive" language just don’t make the cut. Even the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has pointed out the difference between alleged offensiveness and true harassment in order to preserve the First Amendment rights of students and faculty.

Faculty Senate President Peggy Stockdale is no fan of extensive revision to the policy: "You can point to specific problems, and that’s going to be true anywhere. I don’t think we’re in a dire rush to get this new one approved." Even so, at least Stockdale is familiar with the issues and seems to be against the idea of "zero-tolerance" policies.

Stay tuned for more.

Schools: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale