Harvard University is at odds with its graduate student union over the way the school handles sexual harassment claims, a fight that will soon make its way to the airwaves.
Beginning April 18, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers will run advertisements on cable television, social media, radio and billboards demanding the university enact new harassment and discrimination protections for teaching and research assistants.
Student workers want an independent grievance process for survivors guaranteed through a union contract, but university administrators say that could undermine and further complicate the procedures in place.
The 30-second ad paints Harvard as a “world-class” institution with a “world-class #MeToo problem,” where “powerful men have been protected, promoted and believed, while survivors are harassed, assaulted and ignored.”
The spot features sexual assault and harassment claims that have rocked Harvard in recent years, including the case of Jorge I. Dominguez. The government professor remained at the university until last year, despite allegations of inappropriate touching or comments that spanned decades.
The ad also makes mention of Harvard running afoul of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2014 for failing to promptly review student complaints of sexual assault at the law school. At the time, Harvard was one of nearly 100 schools being investigated for violating Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools that receive federal funding.
In the midst of the 2014 case, Harvard adopted a new sexual harassment policy that more closely aligned with the recommendations of the Education Department. The school changed the burden of proof to a “preponderance of evidence” in determining whether sexual harassment occurred, making it easier for victims to prove their claims. The university also established a uniform standard for all of its schools and a centralized office to investigate allegations.
Student workers say those steps aren’t enough and have fallen short in ending a toxic culture at the university that diminishes the voices of survivors to protect the reputation of the school. The only way to change the culture and balance of power at Harvard is through a grievance procedure arbitrated by independent parties, not employees of the university, workers argue.
“Any system that allows Harvard to police itself is a non-starter,” said Madeleine F. Jennewein, a doctoral candidate in virology at Harvard and a union negotiator. “After decades of harassment, Harvard has shown time and time again that it’s not up to this task.”
Harvard spokesman Jonathan L. Swain acknowledges that the university must take additional steps to ensure that every member of its community has a safe and healthy educational and work environment. To that end, he said, Harvard is offering contractual protections against retaliation, a guarantee that no student workers will be pressured to accept an informal resolution of their complaints and a guarantee that an impartial panel will be available to hear appeals.
Swain said the union’s arbitration proposal could result in a process in which accusers and the accused would face off in an adversarial hearing, potentially with lawyers and cross-examination. That is “something the university does not believe is appropriate for these important, complex and sensitive issues,” he said.
“We find it difficult to accept the view that it is impossible to find unbiased members of the university community who could review an investigation on appeal — as our [graduate student union] colleagues seem to be asserting,” Swain said.
The union argues that Harvard’s proposals are inadequate and will do nothing to eliminate potential bias in harassment proceedings. Student workers say the union’s proposal would not hinder the university from investigating claims, nor force survivors into arbitration, instead just providing them that option.
“Thousands of survivors have suffered harassment and discrimination at Harvard. By refusing to change its broken system, Harvard is knowingly allowing that same abuse to happen again,” Jennewein said.
The sexual harassment policy is a major point of contention in contract negotiations between Harvard and its graduate student union. Negotiations began in earnest in October, six months after teaching and research assistants voted to form the bargaining unit. To date, 13 sessions have been held and more than 40 proposals have been issued, with the parties reaching tentative agreements on four of those plans, according to the university.
Harvard was among many prestigious universities that fought graduate unions on the grounds that students are not employees, even after the National Labor Relations Board granted teaching and research assistants at private schools legal protections to unionize in 2016.
In the last year, graduate unions at Brandeis, Tufts and American universities and the New School have ratified their first contracts, according to Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.