President Eric Kaler sounded quite reasonable on the subject of sexual misconduct in his interview with the Minnesota Daily on Feb. 9. However, his Feb. 12 broadcast email to faculty (which permitted no response) revealed an unfortunate perspective on the issue. It began as follows: ”We have a sexual misconduct crisis in our nation, and from the classroom to the laboratory, from the department meeting to the tailgate party, the crisis is on our University of Minnesota campuses, too.”
That statement is highly debatable and suggests an unfortunate and probably ineffective administrative direction for addressing any problems that may exist. While there is certainly heightened awareness, nationally and locally, of sexual conduct in the workplace, there is no crisis. Many of the events generating media coverage (and career destruction) in the recent months occurred years ago. No evidence is presented that sexual misconduct is more frequent than it has been for centuries. The problem is not getting worse.
What does seem to be happening is a change in the implicit and explicit rules governing sexual relations at work. That may be a good thing, but the institution of new behavioral standards is generally best implemented by development of consensus and education, not by administrative fiat and threat. Faculty are told that they must watch a 60-minute online ’training’ (which I have not yet seen) that presumably sets out the new standards. There is an implication that the standards are already known, not new, and that the problem is people are flouting them. But that is not what is happening. New standards are being introduced. However, I am unaware of any process of discussion, debate or vote, which could, for example, have taken place in the University Senate, by which a consensus on those standards was developed.
It is particularly objectionable that the Kaler letter encourages, and practically demands, that the entire University community start reporting on one another regarding these matters that have traditionally been regarded as private, except in the most egregious cases. The letter says in part that it is his administration’s intent “to create an environment that prevents sexual misconduct, encourages bystander intervention and lowers barriers to reporting.”
Following that route without consensus will very likely, in my opinion, lead to widespread mutual suspicion, resentment and noncooperation. It is reminiscent of totalitarian tactics that control people by division.
For example, in the former Soviet Union the rules were intentionally made numerous and obscure so that they were virtually impossible to avoid violating. Then, everyone was vulnerable to being turned in by a personal enemy and mutual suspicion and sullen acquiescence were the norm.
The current national environment concerning these issues borders, in my opinion, on hysteria. I am not the first to note a similarity to the panic over child abuse which swept the U.S. in the ‘80s as chronicled in a recent book by Richard Beck “We Believe the Children," Public Affairs (2015). In that episode, many were unjustly accused and prosecuted and careers were ruined. I have the disappointing impression that our university president is more caught up in a similar hysteria than he is representing the voice of calm reason for which I would hope to come from one in his position.
Perhaps Kaler is truly motivated by concern for the problems of people who have experienced sexual misconduct. One wonders however, whether the fate of the recently resigned president of Michigan State University might not also loom large in his consciousness. In any case, the approach suggested by his letter is, in my opinion, not entirely constructive.
This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
J. Woods Halley is a professor in the University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy.