BY PAMELA FOOHEY
Recently, a student approached the Record with what he believed were Harvard Law’s current sexual harassment guidelines, but which actually were an outdated copy. Although the current guidelines are available online in the Handbook of Academic Policies, there was an active link to the outdated guidelines on HLS’ Human Resources webpage. If Googled or otherwise searched, students were directed to the outdated guidelines. The Record notified the Office of Academic Affairs of the incorrect link and it was changed to link to the current guidelines within a few hours.
Though the Record’s inquiry ultimately led to the removal of the incorrect link, our investigation raised other questions about the HLS community’s overall attention to its sexual harassment guidelines.
Based on the Record’s research, the outdated guidelines had been linked to the HLS website for more than a year, if not longer. The outdated copy directed students to consult with sexual harassment advisors and representatives for information about HLS’ formal and informal grievance filing procedures, and specified that particular advisors and representatives would be appointed each year. In contrast, HLS’ current sexual harassment guidelines instruct students to contact Dean Cosgrove for information and advice.
Although websites are so massive and convoluted nowadays that it may be less a reflection on the administration’s commitment to the guidelines than an understandable oversight that the link went unnoticed, it is disconcerting to think that students may have been dissuaded from pursuing harassment issues because they were questioned, or even turned away at the Dean of Students Office, Human Resources, or the Dean’s Office when they asked about advisors and information representatives. However, the Record has not heard of any students seeking advice at any of these places and having been directed elsewhere.This outdated link highlights navigability difficulties on the law school website, which may have led students to simply Google search for the school’s sexual harassment policy, yielding the outdated guidelines. For example, 3L Roman Goldstein noted, “It’s virtually impossible to find anything on HLS’ website, so I’ve stopped trying to navigate it. Instead, I use Google: search for “Harvard Law X (where X is whatever you want to search for).”
Some student wonder why sexual harrassment is not discussed more openly here at the law school. When asked about her knowledge of the guidelines, 2L Katherine Reilly stated that sexual harassment “is an issue I worked on a lot in undergrad, with varying degrees of success, and it’s always surprise me it’s such a non-subject here.”
“I have no sense of what HLS’ sexual harassment policy is or where I would go for help if I had been harassed,” Reilly continued. “This kind of information should be basic; every student should be told and every student should know that there is someplace they can go to be heard and get help. Even with the most basic information, I think students would be more aware of potential issues and would feel more comfortable seeking out assistance within the law school community.”
With this in mind, the Record approached Dean Cosgrove with thoughts about how to make the guidelines more accessible, suggesting that a link be added to the DOS webpage, which she supported.
Dean Cosgrove commented that “because we want to make sure students feel the policy is accessible, the Dean of Students Office is going to follow the Record’s suggestion and add a link to the policy on the DOS webpage.”
HLS should not be criticized for not identifying the wayward link, but credited for fixing it so swiftly and with such sincerity. More importantly, now that the guidelines are more prominent, it may be an opportune time to open a dialogue about their substance and effectiveness.
When the Record asked students to comment on their knowledge of the guidelines, students were more likely to respond that they would never look for the policy.
A 3L female confessed, “Not only do I have absolutely no idea what the policy is, I have no idea where I would find it, or why I would look for it.” She noted that “the level of conduct that I would be willing to ignore before making those kinds of waves is pretty high and would likely have to reach the level of actual physical assault.”
Another female law student who wished to remain anonymous commented similarly. “I have never read HLS’ sexual harassment policy, but even if I had read it, it would not matter to me,” she said. “I would report a sexual harassment incident only if I had it on tape. Otherwise, I am convinced that I would not be taken seriously and would be labeled a liar and a troublemaker. I would be ‘confidentially’ blacklisted.”
Maintaining that law students and lawyers generally do not report sexual harassment, she continued: “Law schools are the training grounds for law firm behavior and the continuation of the same patterns of behavior. Like law firms, I sense that law schools do not like people (staff, students, or faculty) who report problems, including sexual harassment. I wonder if the sexual harasser in “Legally Blonde” is a real professor at HLS or a made-up character. Elle did not file a lawsuit or report him to HLS.”
It seems that the comments of the 3L female (who, tellingly, also wished to remain anonymous) support this position. She later reflected on her comments: “At first my statement made me think that this is an issue that’s not important to me . . . but maybe I’m actually just a great Exhibit A for educating students more about the policy and making sure there is a process that students can feel comfortable with.”
The aberrant link may have allowed the Record to return the sexual harassment policy to the forefront of the HLS administration’s attention, however briefly, but a more prominent link may not be that beneficial if the discourse about sexual harassment at HLS remains as the Record found it. The student who brought the outdated guidelines to the Record received them from his professor in conjunction with a discussion about designing dispute resolution policies. The professor may have asked his class to debate the minutia and overall effect of the policy, but the women at HLS who this policy primarily impacts are debating whether they can even consider it. Both are important debates. HLS already has a policy that recognizes that sexual harassment is an issue; it is time for it to prove to students that their complaints will be taken seriously or even simply heard.
A more prominent link is a beginning. Distributing the sexual harassment guidelines as a separate document, apart from the Handbook of Academic Policies where they currently reside, may be another step in the right direction. Perhaps the increased prominence will begin to encourage the more comfortable atmosphere the anonymous 3L female identifies. Maybe it will encourage the entire HLS community to consider how it can make the substance of its guidelines more reflective of the situations victims inhabit. If such progress does not happen at the university level where students are (perhaps naively) thought to be able to express themselves in an open, constructive environment, where will it happen?
Some may say such steps are insignificant and will be ineffective, but, where lack of change seems to be the status quo (for example, all adjustments to HLS’ sexual harassment guidelines in the past nine years have been superficial), any change is noteworthy. The correction of the link is an important achievement for HLS, as is the new link. But HLS could achieve more, and should take this opportunity to address the salient concerns raised by its students.