What’s Wrong with This Picture? (Eight Things)


This illustration is part of an anti-discrimination training policy presented as a game or puzzle. All faculty and graduate assistants at Marquette, the Jesuit university in Milwaukee, must take the test. It gives the test-takers 50 seconds to spot eight objects that are harassing or potentially harassing.

Not to keep you in suspense, (spoiler alert) here they are:

  1. “Risque” desk photo of teacher and spouse in bathing suits. Overly sexual.
  2. Anti-war poster, potentially hurtful to military personnel and veterans.
  3. “Over the hill” book or leaflet—ageism.
  4.  Small statue of female nude.
  5.  “Adult” magazine.
  6. Joke book of insults, which could hurt a visitor’s feelings.
  7. Picture of topless male as screen saver.
  8. “Men Working” poster—sexist.

Other scenarios in the test focus on different behaviors, including vulgar language, which “can contribute to a hostile work environment and is frequently one of the components of unlawful harassment claims,” light-hearted joking about age at a 60th birthday party, any comment about a colleague’s weight (Hey, Brad—you look great. Have you lost some weight?) and even phone ringtones that bystanders might find offensive—such as  obscene song lyrics or the sounds of guns or bombs.

Oddly, the established Marquette harassment policy is perfectly sane and provokes no giggles. Instead of fretting about ”Men Working” posters and Don Rickles joke books, it says that for harassment to take place the action or incident must be unwelcome, severe or pervasive and offensive to a reasonable person. But the training program Marquette has bought goes well beyond this policy, finding new grounds for potential harassment.

samesex1With increasing government pressure to micromanage sexual behavior and harassment on campus, look for more mandatory training and very broad rules that can be stretched to cover acts that many of us, perhaps most, do not consider  discriminatory at all. One odd scenario in the harassment program  features two fictional women (Becky  and Maria) discussing their opposition to same-sex marriage and being overheard by a man (Hans)—maybe gay, maybe not– who turns them in for harassment. The program says they could be guilty, but Marquette misses the irony here: the two women might be ruled guilty for privately approving  a Catholic doctrine at a Catholic university.

John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette, said this on his blog about the Becky-Maria conversation: “Thus employees of Marquette are clearly warned that expression can be harassment even if it’s…discussion of a political issue…. one is not surprised to find, in the course, the following statement: ‘Liability Avoidance Tip: It is best not to discuss any of the protected categories at work.’”

McAdams noted that after a department chairman tore down a harmless quote by humorous Dave Barry because it offended him, Marquette backed the professor who tore it down.

McAdams added: ”So enclaves of authoritarian intolerance exist at Marquette, and doctrines of “harassment” are a tool they will happily use. A genuinely Catholic university would be tough on real harassment (and without being bullied by the Federal Government), but would tell the perpetually offended and aggrieved “people are going to disagree with you; live with it.” And it would honestly say so. But that’s not the Marquette we have.”

The training program was created and sold by WorkplaceAnswers, a profit-making operation which distributes the program to thousands of workplaces.  The strange nostrums in the panels of the training “module” (i.e. the peril of leaving a “Men Working” sign in your office) go well beyond federal law and any social consensus, and elevate minor irritations and legitimate political discussion to the level of discrimination.

The program also warns against any comments about people with protected status (“It’s best not to discuss any of the protected categories at work.”) Nobody wants workplaces to become cauldrons of political controversy, but coming down hard on  an overheard hallway remark on a mainstream issue is  bit much. The program even warns those taking the test to be careful about body language in the workplace, the better to censor yourself: “Be alert to nonverbal clues indicating a colleague might not welcome certain conduct.”

This remarkably  combines  exquisite sensitivity with an authoritarian tone. Call it mandatory niceness.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with This Picture? (Eight Things)

  1. What’s wrong with that photo is that is a very badly done work of Photoshop (or whatever the generic term is for computer manipulation of an image.)

    Could that not find a better artist? Back in my day, Marquette was a good school, and undoubtedly had many fine graphic artists or photographers on faculty or as students.

  2. Political correctness has grown over Marquette like kudzu over a field in rural North Carolina. I grew up in Milwaukee and remember that the school used to field a very good basketball team known as the Warriors. Long before the flap over the Redskins, Marquette dropped that name in favor of the current “Golden Eagles.” The “No One Must Ever Be Offended” mania has Marquette and most other universities in its grip.

  3. What if I have a crucifix with a shirtless Jesus? Is that offensive at Jesuit Marquette, too? Better investigate the chapel on campus!

  4. So, according to universities, I have to practice recognizing nonverbal cues “indicating that a colleague might not welcome certain conduct” or I could be charged with harassment.

    At the same time, according to California, it is supposedly impossible for me to tell whether my sexual partner is okay with what we are doing based on nonverbal cues.

    Okay, academia.

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