URBANA — The University of Illinois is assembling a group of committees to tackle complex issues surrounding sexual harassment on campus, from potential new sanctions to rules about consensual relationships between professors and students.
Some are already meeting, some will be appointed down the road, and a key group that will review campus policies and sanctions for sexual misconduct should be up and running by the end of the month, said William Bernhard, vice provost for academic affairs.
The provost’s office will coordinate the committees, which will enlist members from a wide swath of campus, including faculty, students, employees and campus senators, he said.
The panel that will review campus policies and sanctions was spurred by discontent over the relatively mild punishment imposed on UI Law Professor Jay Kesan, who was accused of harassment by several colleagues and students. He later agreed to take an unpaid leave of absence.
That committee will have heavy representation from the Academic Senate, Bernhard said, as it could involve due process and changing policies and procedures that require senate approval.
The campus has already created a committee to study UI policies on consensual relationships, which was in the works before the law school case became public in the fall, Bernhard said.
Currently, the Student Code and Campus Administrative Manual generally prohibit relationships between faculty members and students they supervise, Bernhard said.
“If you’re a student in my class, we can’t be dating,” he said.
But the policies are narrower and less detailed than those adopted by many of the UI’s peers, according to a report by law Professor Jamelle Sharpe, who is chairing the committee. They’re based on nepotism and conflict-of-interest concerns rather than the uneven “power dynamic” between students and faculty, it said, and they don’t specify any consequences.
The committee will examine what changes might be needed and the broader question of whether faculty-student relationships, particularly with undergraduates, are so “inherently unbalanced” that the campus should steer away from them, Bernhard said.
A #MeToo group appointed by the office of the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion has already been meeting and will be formalized soon, Bernhard said. Working under Rusty Barcelo, special assistant to Chancellor Robert Jones, the group is considering a statement of campus values on sexual harassment and the treatment of women, he said. The hope is to provide “best practices” for department heads as they implement policies and confront sexual harassment in their units, he said.
The group is organizing a public forum later this semester, he said.
The campus also hopes to appoint a committee focusing on graduate students, who are in a unique position when it comes to harassment because they teach undergraduates but also depend heavily on faculty advisers for their research, Bernhard said.
“They are the group that’s most likely to be harassed and also the group that is most likely to be accused of harassment,” Bernhard said. “Particularly in science, there’s this lab culture, and the tremendous dependency of graduate students on a mentor for funding, for intellectual direction, everything, that creates some vulnerabilities.”
Better guidelines and training for faculty members to manage those dynamics would be helpful, he said. Professors tend to repeat their own experience as graduate students, and “you don’t know there are different ways to do it,” he said.
The issue of sexual misconduct against undergraduates is also critical, he said, but it’s a “moving target” because of the Trump administration’s proposed changes to federal guidelines for those cases, he said.
The UI is sending feedback to the Department of Education during the open comment period, which ends Jan. 28, he said.
‘All or nothing’
The proposed rules would put more emphasis on the due-process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct and could require campuses to use a higher standard of proof — “clear and convincing” evidence rather than a “preponderance” of evidence.
At the same time, those pushing for a broader range of sanctions against professors accused of harassment argue that the UI’s policies make it too hard to prove sexual misconduct, which is defined as severe or pervasive conduct that creates a hostile work environment for the victim, a standard based on federal law. They say there should be more sanctions short of outright dismissal.
“It sometimes feels as if it’s all or nothing,” Bernhard said. “That has clearly caused problems for us.”
Bernhard said there’s some tension between the #MeToo movement and concerns about due process, academic freedom and the rights of the accused.
“To me, that’s where the discussion has to happen,” he said. “We have these two values that we talk a lot about. … How do we bring this together? How do we make them work?”
The committees will gather information and host discussions to “allow us to redefine what our community norms are.”
“All of higher education is grappling with this right now, and there are some tough questions,” Bernhard said.
The consensual relationships committee could have recommendations by the end of the semester, but the policy and sanctions group will likely take longer, he said.
“In April, we’ll have some sense of the direction of where we’re going and a set of some proposals, some of which will be enacted more quickly than others,” Bernhard said.
“People are eager for change, and people are eager for the campus to address these issues. At the same time, people recognize the complexity of these issues, particularly since the external environment is changing at the same time,” he said.
The #MeToo movement has increased demands for transparency and accountability, “focusing everyone to rethink and reconsider how we’ve handled these situations in the past and how we can improve in the future.”
Meanwhile, a similar task force at the UI system level has met once, according to its chair, Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson. The panel is taking a “high-level look” at education, prevention and responses to sexual misconduct at all three campuses, to ensure they are consistent with best practices in higher education, Wilson said.
It also retained an outside law firm, Franzcyk Radelet, to review UI policies in light of changing laws and federal guidelines, she said.
Members will be in regular communication with the campus policy group to ensure their efforts are aligned, Wilson and Bernhard said.
The system task force doesn’t have a deadline, but Wilson said it will culminate in a leadership retreat with chancellors, provosts, deans and athletic officials to discuss whatever recommendations emerge. The goal isn’t a quick fix but a broader effort to ensure the UI is a leader in this area, she said.