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Q9. Enforcement and Adjudication?

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Review of Terminology

Talking Points

  1. Without thinking about specific infractions, what range of sanctions should be available?
  2. To what extent should sanctions take into account the accused’s disciplinary history or employment history?
  3. To what extent should sanctions take into account the magnitude of the underlying power differential?
  4. Should Cornell’s academic  hiring process take into  account the candidate’s compliance with related policies at past institutions?
  5. Who adjudicates?

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Last Updated: December 5, 2017 at 3:02 pm


  1. At my previous institution, I worked as an undergraduate lab assistant. All of the experiments I helped conduct were under the guidance of a tenured professor at that university. Over the course of one year, I noticed my mentor developed an increasingly familial relationship with me: texting to speak about entirely unacademic subjects, inviting me on one-on-one hikes, and eventually, asking me to dinner and to help him pack up his home for his impending sabbatical leave. I was uncomfortable with this development, but received advice from family to “keep him happy,” with the assurance that the relationship would likely cumulate in a warm, unromantic parting and a good reference from him. In retrospect, I should have removed myself from the situation, but at the time I did not wish to upset him by declining his invitations.
    I noticed that my mentor would become more forgiving of my errors in the lab, errors that resulted in a more strict attitude from him when done by other members of the lab. On the night before he left for his sabbatical, I was in his company, and he made explicitly romantic advances towards me. I rejected these and left, but afterwards believed that my obliging attitude in the past had led him on. In addition to the previously listed escalations of familiarity, this mentor also started to call me pet names and touch me in a non-suggestive, perhaps familial manner: commenting on the size of my hands while holding them, grabbing my neck, and ruffling my hair.
    I believe that if faculty were required to do an online workshop, such as current Cornell students are required to do on relationship boundaries, and were aware that relationships between professors and students were strictly forbidden, then this situation might have been avoided. I found that reporting this situation to an office far removed from the department, the Title IX office, was more effective and I was listened to more attentively than I was when discussing this situation with the department chair of the mentor’s lab. I believe this individual’s reputation had more weight than my summary of my experience did for the department chair. I do not know what ramifications were faced by this individual, except that he still holds his position at the university. While I do not think firing for one such offense is necessary, I do hope that he was required to reevaluate the attitude with which he behaves towards students in his lab. Due to the inherent power dynamic, it can be more difficult to reject such advances, especially when they take on an ambiguous form and may be interpreted as familial and, while misguided, still come off as innocent.

  2. It should go without saying that, while an accusation against someone with an otherwise spotless record might be reasonably argued as a misunderstanding, a series of accusations against the same person should be viewed much more pointedly. Thus, it only seems responsible that the university should, in such cases, examine the past disciplinary history of an accused employee for any relevant incidents. This research would ideally extend to the accused’s past places of employment where possible, as a few prominent news stories in this area have pointed to a pattern of professors simply transferring to another university, effectively wiping the slate clean. In the interests of leading the academic world by example, Cornell might also give a statement signalling a degree of openness to such requests from other universities conducting their own investigations.

  3. When an investigation is made and a violation of policy that is serious enough to warrant sanctions is found, then public disclosure of the perpetrator (while protecting the identity of the victim if they so choose) should be required. This would help to create an atmosphere in which such behavior is unacceptable. It would help prevent “passing the trash” (like the Catholic Church). A faculty member in my department was forced to leave, and is now a named chair elsewhere. Such behaviors cannot be viewed as only an HR problem about which we maintain silence.
    Currently at Cornell, and many other universities, the scales seem heavily weighted in favor of a faculty member over claimants. Only ~6% of persons who believe they have been subject to harassment go on to file a complaint. No wonder! The process is very difficult for them and rarely leads to a satisfactory outcome. We need to do better.

    There should be a process that if multiple people complain (without filing a formal complaint) about a particular person, an investigation is triggered.

    In recent months the media have reported on numerous cases where a person in power has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple people and that has led to firings and resignations. At universities, such accusations rarely lead to firing or even to forced retirement or resignation. Even where a complaint has been filed and found to be true, the perpetrators are sometimes found not to have violated policy. There is a recent case of this at Cornell. The policy is clearly inadequate. In the recent case at Cornell, the complaints [by several women] were outside the current ridiculously short statute of limitations.

    The situation in which “everybody knows” that a particular faculty member harasses students is intolerable, but not unusual. There should be a process in which an investigation is triggered if the chair or dean is informed by a colleague or student that a faculty member is behaving inappropriately.

  4. As a senior Cornell faculty member, I have seen the damage caused to students and faculty by ‘secret investigations’ and title IX bureaucracy run amok. There have been several successful lawsuits against Cornell by students who’ve had their reputations and lives destroyed despite the lack of evidence or due process. A much larger number of students simply decide to walk away not because they are guilty but because they lack the financial resources to mount a legal challenge. Further, a shockingly large number of such students are from third world countries or of non-Caucasian origin. There is even talk of a class-action lawsuit against Cornell due to the damage created by the Title IX office and related bureaucracies. Due to these botched star chamber trials, Cornell currently has the largest number of ongoing OCR investigations. The recent lawsuit by a junior faculty member in A&S, Physics whose tenure was denied on the basis of such a withchunt has gained worldwide attention and contempt for Cornell administrators and the university as a whole. I believe this matter is still ongoing and that this faculty member is still being victimized by the administration.

    So, I am perturbed by the fact that much of the discussion on this new policy seems to be centered on punishment, sanctions and ‘public shaming’ rather than evidence, due process, impartial investigation and appropriate repercussions for false allegations. It is one thing for the Cornell counsel to assume that it can railroad students, especially international students, since they probably don’t have the resources to mount a legal challenge. It is another thing for the University to try and destroy faculty careers for the sake of political convenience (see above). The way this is going, this new policy will become the next litigation battleground for Cornell.

    The committee needs to understand the long-term implications of any policy that relies on anonymous allegations, assumption of guilt, and adjudication without clear and irrevocable guidelines for evidence and process. At the end of the day, as we have seen with the title IX debacles, no justice is served with a witch hunt. Even if we are to credit the narratives of an ‘epidemic’ of harassment, we don’t solve the issue by creating a new injustice.

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