Alexander McPherson, a Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at the University of California: Irvine, is posing a test to the power of the University of California over its faculty members. They mandated that he attend a class on sexual harassment-prevention. He refused to attend. Six weeks ago, the University withdrew both his supervision of a lab and his students. They’re now threatening him with unpaid leave if he fails to comply. We asked McPherson for his account of the process. Do read on.
The University of California raised no objection in 2004 when the California Assembly passed a law, AB1825, mandating that every employer of more than 50 persons provide sexual harassment training for all of its employees. Since then, I was occassionally advised that I was not in compliance with the law. I was warned that my supervisory and teaching responsibilities at UCI would be taken away if I did not comply.
I ignored the edict and the coercion, but also stated clearly that my refusal to comply was deliberate. I acted on the basis of conscience and principle. I further made it explicit that they should consider my refusal an act of civil disobedience and offered to go to jail, but I would not be bullied into taking their training. Six weeks ago the University became more aggressive in the matter and informed me that supervisory responsibilities over my laboratory and students were to be turned over to other University officials and faculty. I continued to refuse to take sexual harassment training, and do so now.
You might ask: why am I so steadfast on this issue? Why not simply take the training and be done with it? First of all, the training is a ridiculous fraud. It is simple foolishness and an insult to anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Any claim that this training will discourage sexual harassment is sheer nonsense. Evidence that this sort of “training” has any meaningful effect on reducing sexual harassment is non existent. Here is how one (female) colleague described the experience:
..the whole on-line training is a joke. You go through the questions, hit any answer,then spend time away from the computer and hit finish about 2 to 3 hours later. You don’t have to get a single answer correct to pass. You can also get one of your students to do it for you, once your have logged on.
If the training process is so inane, why does the University pursue it with such determination? And let us remember that the University is doing this at the long suffering taxpayer’s considerable expense. First, there is a powerful political/cultural interest group promoting this disgraceful process, and second, it relieves the University of liability in sexual harassment lawsuits.
I made a public statement that “This edict is an offense to my sensibilities, it calls into question my character, my reputation, and my intelligence”. This perspective was shared, echoed, and amplified by many letters of support I received, particularly from academics. About 25% of these letters were from women who correctly see this conflict as having little to do with sexual harassment and much to do with civil liberties and the sanctity of the individual. The comments were rich with words like “demeaning, oppressive, politically driven, dictatorial, indoctrination”. They were characterized by phrases such as “unctuous twaddle”, “sanctimonious halfwits”, “loutish intimidation”, and “trampling over human dignity”. Was I being too sensitive? The letters convinced me otherwise.
In my opinion, imposition of training bearing a political cast violates my academic freedom and my rights as a tenured professor. The University has already nullified the right to supervise my laboratory and the students I teach. They have threatened my livelihood, and ultimately my position at the University. This, for failing to submit to mock training in sexual harassment, a requirement that was never a condition of my employment at UC 30 years ago. Can the University now terminate any tenured faculty by simply contriving an arbitrary requirement with which a professor finds it unconscionable to comply?
I sought to find a reasonable means to resolve the impasse that had developed between myself and UCI. I proposed the following; I would take the training if the University would provide me with a brief, written statement absolving me of any suspicion, guilt or complicity regarding sexual harassment now, or at any time during my 30 year tenure at UC. I wanted any possible stigma removed from the training experience. The statement I requested is as follows:
The University of California, Irvine acknowledges that the sexual harassment training required of Professor McPherson by the State of California is a requirement for his continued employment at the University, and a condition he will fulfill only under protest. Fulfilling this requirement in no way implies, suggests, or indicates that the University currently has any reason to believe that Professor McPherson has ever sexually harassed any student, or any person under his supervision during his 30 year career with the University of California.
The University refused to provide any such statement. This raises the question, Why not? The statement is completely innocuous and unobjectionable, and the University should have been willing to write it for any faculty member whose record is as free of stain as is my own. Their reply was again that if I didn’t comply with the law then I would be placed on unpaid leave. I offered a simple and straightforward compromise that would have resolved the problem entirely, and it was bluntly put aside.
The state, through the University, is invoking the issue of sexual harassment training to advance a particular political/cultural agenda. It is literally using the University, its faculty, and its students as political tools. Sexual harassment is a politically charged issue. The people of California have granted no authority to the state to impose narrow political and cultural proclivities on individual citizens. The disagreement between myself and the University has, I believe, broader implications. It is a question of personal freedom and civil liberties. I like to recall the words born by an ancient American flag that predated Old Glory. They warned, “Don’t Tread on Me”. Perhaps it is time for those concerned with the freedom of the individual to resurrect that flag.
Alexander McPherson is a Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at the University of California: Irvine.