Sexual Harassment in Higher Education

By Leitich, Keith A. | Education, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment in Higher Education


Leitich, Keith A., Education


It hasn't been until only recently that the issue of sexual harassment has become an acknowledged problem on college campuses. Across the nation, sexual harassment has become a major issue in higher education as media coverage and public awareness have increased dramatically. During this time there has been a considerable amount of research examining sexual harassment in higher education (e.g. Wilson and Kraus, 1983; Maihoff and Forrest, 1983; Cammaert, 1985; Metha and Nigg, 1982; Allen and Okawa, 1987). Despite the numerous studies conducted over the last decade, there is no exact data measuring the prevalence of sexual harassment. Dziech and Weiner (1990) and Rubin and Borgers (1990) estimate that 30% of female graduate and undergraduate students were harassed sometime during their college career, while Gordon (1996) and Truax (1996) conclude that as many as 40% of undergraduate women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Yet, the crux of the problem may be in gender differentiation in the interpretation of social-sexual behavior.

Although colleges and universities are charged with the safeguarding of their students, they must balance both the rights of the alleged victim and perpetrator while investigating harassment complaints (Mangan, 1993; Riggs, Murrell, and Cutting 1993). Yet, increasingly university's are coming under attack for failing to elimate a climate conducive to sexual harassment of female students at their institutions.

Clearly, the complexity of the issue of sexual harassment is rooted in defining hostile or offensive behavior. Since Catherine MacKinnon (1979) first articulated the theory of sexual harassment, it wasn't until the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights released "Sexual Harassment Guidelines," that there was a policy statement establishing guidelines for interpreting and enforcing Title IX in higher education. According to Williams and Blake (1997) the O.C.R.'s guidelines began to "provide a solid foundation for analyzing claims of sexual harassment" (p. A56). Prior to the O.C.R.'s guidelines, discourse on the concept of sexual harassment was shaped in three different domains; the legal, the political and the social scientific. Yet there was an absence of a widely agreed-upon definition of sexual harassing behavior, a definition broad enough to comprehend the variety of experiences in higher education to which the term refers. For example, Schmidt and Atchison (1993) defined sexual harassment as it applied to higher education "an instrument by which males erode females' career aspirations" (p. 43), while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in Jordan v. Clark, 847 F. 2D 1368 (9th Cir. 1988), created a detailed prescription for showing sexual harassment. In order to bring a case of sexual harassment, the plaintiff demonstrate a 'hostile environment'. The plaintiff must prove:

1. that he or she was subjected to demands for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature;

2. that this conduct was unwelcome;

3. that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the

conditions the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment [847 F. 2d at 1373].

Yet according to Kaplan and Lee (1995) "the definition of an `abusive working environment' has not been uniformly interpreted" (p. 245).

The Project on the Status and Education of Women (1978) was among the first to apply the concept of sexual harassment to higher education. In the years following,

   college and university administrators, attorneys, affirmative, affirmative
   action officers, women's advocacy groups, student judicial advisors,
   counselors, students, faculty, and staff have discussed the issue of sexual
   harassment on campus, developed and revised policies, conducted prevention
   programs, and compared notes with other institutions (Taylor, 1996, p. 83).

Yet problems have persisted in defining sexual harassment as it applies in higher education "despite the enactment of state laws, the development of institutional guidelines, and decisions in numerous court cases" (Lott, 1993, p. …

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