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Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA).

Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA).

Daniel Chee/The Skyline View/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

U.S. lawmaker’s plan to combat sexual harassment by scientists could get complicated

A trio of recent sexual harassment cases involving university scientists is drawing extensive attention from at least one lawmaker in Congress. In the wake of the cases, Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA) says she wants to strengthen a federal antidiscrimination law to help solve the problem. But it’s not clear how her proposed solution—still in the formative stage—would work, or whether it can be enacted into law.

Speier spurred headlines last week when she took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to reveal the lurid details of an investigation into sexual harassment by astronomer Timothy Slater, then at the University of Arizona in Tucson, more than a decade ago.

In 2005, university administrators concluded that Slater had engaged in sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment. The confidential report released by Speier describes Slater running a workplace rife with sexually charged jokes, lunchtime trips to a strip club, demeaning comments to female co-workers, and open leering at undergraduate women. Although Slater has denied some of the details, he admitted to a number of them and described himself as “sexually overt,” according to the investigation. In 2008, Slater left Arizona for the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he now holds a science education chair endowed by the state.

Speier’s comments on the Slater case came just 3 months after University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned following press accounts of a university investigation that found he had sexually harassed students for years. And they came the same day ScienceInsider reported that astronomer Christian Ott of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena was being disciplined for gender-based harassment involving two graduate students.

Full disclosure?

In response to these cases, Speier, whose district encompasses parts of tech-friendly San Francisco, has vowed to press for changes to federal law. Pointing to the Slater case, she said that when students, faculty, or staff move from one university to another, the new university should be alerted if the person was found to have violated provisions of a 1972 federal law targeting gender discrimination in higher education, commonly known as Title IX.

“It shouldn’t be like the Catholic Church, where once there was an establishment of pedophilia, they just move the priest to another parish,” Speier told ScienceInsider. “It really encourages persons who are engaged in that kind of behavior that they get a free pass.”

Speier’s proposal hasn’t yet been formalized into legislative language, however. She said she is still considering a wide range of issues, including how to handle questions of confidentiality and privacy.

Speier has also sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education asking whether universities already should be making such disclosures. Department of Education spokesperson Dorie Nolt said they had Speier’s request, and “look forward to responding.”

A number of female scientists are applauding Speier’s stand, saying she is helping draw attention to chronic problems of discrimination against women in science. Following her remarks, the hashtag #astroSH was trending on Twitter, with people recounting tales of stalking, belittling comments, unwanted advances, and derailed careers.

Julianne Dalcanton, an astronomer at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has been commenting on the case, said Speier’s idea could help university hiring committees that currently operate in the dark, or rely on what she described as a “whisper network.”

“Having something where the full report about exactly what happened follow[s] you to your next job, so the new institution is capable of making informed decisions. That would be progress,” Dalcanton told ScienceInsider.

Legal complications

But legal experts say it could prove tricky to craft a congressional response that reaches down to the level of university labs.

It’s not clear exactly how to make sure a university is alerted to a job candidate’s past violations, said Daniel Swinton, a lawyer and managing partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, which advises universities on issues including Title IX.

Often a university doesn’t know when an employee is applying to work elsewhere, so they wouldn’t know to disclose the information, he told ScienceInsider. Also, universities are often loath to release details of a person’s personnel record. State employment laws frequently restrict disclosure of such information, and universities are gun shy of potential lawsuits, Swinton said. Universities already have the option of noting disciplinary actions on student transcripts, he noted, but many don’t.

One possible option is to require the hiring institution to ask recent employers and references about any disciplinary action or Title IX violations, Swinton said. But he predicted any federal efforts to open up personnel files would face legal challenges by groups representing employees. And if violations were disclosed, he predicts that the disclosure would almost certainly not include a complete investigator’s report.

“A few sentences is what I think most institutions would be willing to do,” Swinton said. “And that’s not being chicken. That’s just the world we live in.”

Already there are signs that Speier’s effort could face resistance. Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington, D.C., said the organization could support disclosure of past Title IX violations. But only if a university’s rules for handling Title IX complaints met certain standards for due process, such as having a faculty committee review allegations. Many universities don’t currently meet AAUP standards, Levy said.

“We don’t want serial harassers going from place to place. But it seems like a number of faculty members are getting hauled up for these charges on very questionable basis,” said Levy, who staffs the association’s committee on women in the academic professions.

Slater responds

It’s not clear how Speier’s proposal might have played a role in a situation like Slater’s. The University of Wyoming knew something of his past. Wyoming officials were tipped off or heard a rumor, and contacted an Arizona official, who confirmed that there were allegations of sexual harassment against him, says University of Wyoming spokesman Chad Baldwin. Baldwin said they were not informed of the details contained in the investigation report.

In a written statement, Slater told ScienceInsider that “[the University of Wyoming] was informed in writing by me before hiring me of the precise findings, conclusions, and interventions. This was in addition to extensive due diligence done by [the University of Wyoming] and interviewing of me on

specifically this issue.”

The University of Wyoming doesn’t have a standard policy of asking job applicants about past Title IX violations, nor does it commonly share that information with other universities, Baldwin said. He predicted that Slater’s hiring, as well as how the university screens job applicants, would be discussed at an upcoming meeting of university trustees.

Universities will hire people even when told of a record of sexual harassment, says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C. She said there are already cases besides Slater’s. But universities who make that hiring decision need to take steps to supervise the employee or student to ensure the past isn’t repeated, she said.

“There’s one side of me that wants to say: I would really like to see these universities not hire these folks. Because the one surefire way to really make sure that people get that we are serious about sexual harassment and racial discrimination and all these things is for people to literally have their livelihoods threatened,” she said. “On the other hand I also know that in the real world second chances can be a good idea.”