It is not uncommon these days to read an article in the news about a pattern of sexual harassment or assault that went on for a long time before it was addressed. To make it into the news, such cases usually involve a powerful person in the public eye — a billionaire, a politician, a Hollywood celebrity, a well-known author, an academic scholar.
It is natural to wonder how someone so visible could get away with such patterns of behavior for so long. Is it because of a bias that protects the powerful, resulting in laxer enforcement? This may be true in some cases. As a university system and a campus, we have worked hard to make our own disciplinary processes consistent and robust.
But focusing on punishment alone does not answer this deeper question: As a society, and a campus community, have we failed to elevate respectful behavior as an essential element in the profile of a truly successful, venerated person? If so, has this failure led to tolerance of patterns of harassment by those we endow with power? At historical and societal levels, the answer surely seems to be “yes.” This is an answer we have the ability to change, in the future, on our campus.
It is natural to be interested in consequences for high-ranking people who commit misconduct. But perhaps it would serve us better strategically to focus on how those people get raised on their pedestals in the first place. We do not want disrespectful, harassing or bullying behavior to be part of anyone’s ascent. This means agreeing as a community on what the expectations are regarding respectful and affirming interactions as well as defining success in those terms and visibly rewarding it.
Research shows that creating a respectful, inclusive environment prevents sexual harassment. More fundamentally, a respectful and inclusive environment makes for better learning, teaching, research, advising and mentoring. In short, infusing respect into our activities makes our campus more successful at its stated aims.
Disrespectful behavior has the opposite effect; as a form of oppression, it prevents others from fully participating and thriving as scholars or employees. Intimidating a student into silence is not good teaching. Creating a climate of fear in a research environment stifles the creativity needed to shift intellectual paradigms.
Acknowledging that being respectful is part of being truly excellent requires overt community agreement on what the expectations for respectful interactions are.
Most people already have strong personal expectations for the community. In the 2018 MyVoice Survey, for example, most participants reported holding “prosocial” (socially positive) views about supporting someone who is experiencing sexual violence. Many said they would intervene if they witnessed behavior that seems wrong. Most people, however, reported they did not believe others held those same values or would do something to intervene.
Explicitly identifying shared expectations for respectful interactions — for example, on a department website or a class syllabus — is reassuring. Stating expectations clearly makes it easier to recognize instances when those expectations are not being met, enabling active bystanders to step in and prevent the behavior from continuing.
Every individual, not just people in positions of power, can do this in ways that feel safe for them. For example, the PATH to Care Center and the Bears That CARE peer educator program offer workshops and resources on everyday things people can do to be active prosocial bystanders, support those who have experienced harm and transform culture. Student organizations, academic departments and staff units can publish clearly defined community expectations.
All community members can learn more about available resources and efforts taking place on campus by completing required trainings, searching online and reading the Annual Report on Sexual Violence/Sexual Harassment. There are also a number of ways to get involved, like applying for a Social Norms Seed Grant to uplift positive social norms within your community or consulting with PATH to Care or the Division of Equity and Inclusion.
We are used to rewarding readily quantifiable hallmarks of success: high GPA, numbers of prestigious publications, revenue generation. Alongside those meritorious criteria, we must place an even higher value on a person’s contributions to a respectful and inclusive environment in deciding who to hire or admit to our programs, who to honor with campus awards or attention, who to put into positions of responsibility.
Our campus has made progress on diversity — though more is needed — by including positive contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion as a criterion in hiring and promotion. If we do the same for respectful behavior and contributions to healthy climate, we will come closer to a campus culture in which all members feel valued and can realize the full measure of their talents.
Ava Blustein is a special projects analyst with the office of special advisor to the chancellor on sexual harassment. Sharon Inkelas is the special faculty advisor to the chancellor on sexual violence/sexual harassment.