Opposing a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Sexual Harassment

According to recent reports in The Daily Princetonian and The Huffington Post, Princeton University Professor Sergio Verdú was found responsible for sexual harassment in June of this year. A Title IX investigation determined that Verdú “engaged in unwelcome verbal or physical behavior” towards one of his graduate student advisees, and that said behavior “unreasonably interfered with [the student’s] educational conditions by creating a hostile or offensive environment.” Since the publication of the Daily Princetonian and Huffington Post articles, op-ed pieces have been written and petitions have been issued, criticizing the University’s handling of Verdú’s case. Specifically, they have demanded that the University retroactively increase the severity of Verdú’s punishment and that the University implement a “zero-tolerance policy” for cases of sexual harassment. The Board categorically condemns acts of sexual harassment, but we disagree with the op-ed authors and petitioners on both points.

The petition asks that the University “elevate its disciplinary actions against Professor Verdú,” but such retroactive alterations, outside of a formal appeals process, to an already-adjudicated case would constitute a severe violation of due process. Decisions about responsibility and punishment should be left in the hands of trained University bodies like the Title IX Panel that considered Professor Verdú’s case. It is unfair to relitigate a case in the court of public opinion merely for the sake of satisfying public outrage. Moreover, while we do not know the exact punishment levied against Professor Verdú, we do know that the University imposed some penalty beyond the mandatory eight hours of counseling. Based on the University’s annual Title IX Report, that penalty could presumably have been a letter of concern, a warning letter, or probation. We hope that it was on the more severe end of these options, but we disagree that his punishment should be increased after the fact. Finally, it is worth noting that University disciplinary proceedings such as this are guided largely by precedent. Penalties are determined by reference to previous cases that occurred under similar circumstances. It would be inappropriate to increase Professor Verdú’s penalty when other professors who committed similar infractions, but whose cases did not receive similar public attention, received less severe punishments.

The Board also rejects calls for a “zero-tolerance policy” in cases of sexual harassment. Generally speaking, a zero-tolerance policy is a poor way to dole out punishments. Different crimes and infractions can be more or less severe than others. Any effective adjudicative procedure must recognize this fact and, accordingly, assign punishments of varying severity. This is a fundamental aspect of our nation’s criminal justice system, and the University would be remiss if it did not incorporate the principle in its own internal proceedings. Correlating different levels of punishment with different levels of wrongdoing is especially important in cases of sexual harassment. As a specific policy violation, sexual harassment is poorly defined and can encompass an extensive range of behaviors. As a result, there is room for misinterpretation and even abuse of sexual harassment policies. Examples of such abuse abound: a professor at Louisiana State University was terminated for using “off-color language,” and in another case a Northwestern University professor was accused of Title IX violations simply for writing an article that expressed worries about “sexual paranoia” on college campuses.

A zero-tolerance policy is particularly inappropriate in the context of flawed Title IX procedures, about which we have written before. Current procedures for adjudicating Title IX allegations lack due process protections for the accused and utilize an unfair ‘preponderance of evidence standard,’ which finds the accused responsible for a violation if it is more likely than not that they have committed the alleged violation. If the University wishes to treat sexual harassment allegations seriously, then it should reinstitute robust due process protections for the accused and raise the standard of proof so as to ensure confidence in the adjudication process. So long as the University does not adopt these common-sense reforms, it is wrong to automatically terminate someone who is found responsible under the current, flawed procedures.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a zero-tolerance policy could backfire in a number of ways specific to an academic setting. Princeton prides itself on its low student-professor ratio, and students frequently note the wonderful ways in which professors go beyond the classroom to engage with students and advisees. Commonplace examples include professors inviting students to their home for dinner, students inviting professors to have coffee on Nassau Street, and both students and professors inviting each other to interesting cultural and learning opportunities. Yet, under a zero-tolerance policy, the certainty professors would be fired if found responsible of sexual harassment would deter them from engaging with their advisees in one-on-one situations -- particularly their female advisees -- out of an abundance of caution to avoid being accused of harassment. Consequently, advisees would be robbed of many opportunities to network, receive mentorship, or otherwise develop a strong relationship with their advisors.

Additionally, a zero-tolerance policy could actually make it less likely that allegations of sexual harassment are brought forward. If a victim of sexual harassment knows that bringing any allegation against their harasser could result in that person’s termination, then he or she may not be inclined to bring their claim if they do not feel that the incident warrants a punishment so severe as termination. This would leave unreported a number of cases of sexual harassment that should be punished, albeit less harshly than termination. Additionally, if a professor were fired for sexual harassment, their termination would be public knowledge and likely the subject of considerable media coverage. Victims who do not wish to make their situation so public (for fear of retribution, personal privacy concerns, etc.) may thus be deterred from lodging an official complaint.

The Board understands that those frustrated with the University’s current sexual harassment policies wish to support victims by removing harassing professors and making the academic environment a safe and comfortable place for victims. We acknowledge this concern, but we believe the University must not ignore important due process concerns, that it must be prudent when assigning penalties to violations of varying severity, and that it must consider the serious downsides of a zero-tolerance policy.

Megan Armstrong '19, Rachel Glenn '19, Dee-Dee Huang '20, and MaryAnn Placheril '21 abstained from the writing of this editorial.

Dissent, in part

We agree with the opinion expressed in the majority that it would be incorrect to try Professor Verdu in the court of public opinion; however, we respectfully disagree with the majority’s advocacy against a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. As such, we dissent.

As ELE Professor Andrew Houck ‘00 argued in his letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian, “there is no greater power discrepancy in all of academia than [that] between PhD advisor and advisee.” We believe this power discrepancy is too great to overlook, in all cases involving both undergraduate and graduate student victims. For graduate students, the stakes are alarmingly high: a student’s advisor plays an integral role in the success and distribution of a student’s research, and functions as the primary advisor for the student when he or she enters the job market. While the relationship between professor and undergraduate does not typically impact the undergraduate’s post-University prospects to the extent the PhD-advisee relationship impacts the advisee’s prospects, we argue any professor who would be willing to make unwanted sexual advances toward an undergraduate would pose a similar risk to graduate students. Independent of this risk, we believe Princeton is an environment in which no student should ever have to interact with a professor who has been found responsible of sexual harassment. Simply put, this community deserves better.

The majority advances a number of problematic arguments to advocate against a zero tolerance policy; we will respond to three.

First, the majority claims sexual harassment is often poorly defined, which leads to wrongful termination of professors. The majority fails to engage with the University’s definition of sexual harassment as “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which is directed at a person based on sex, gender identity or gender expression, when these behaviors are sufficiently severe and/or pervasive to have the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s educational experience, working conditions, or living conditions by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.” Notably, the University’s definition includes a severe and pervasive clause, which is to say one unwelcome and offensive comment or gesture almost certainly will not fit under the definition of sexual harassment.

Second, the majority claims a zero tolerance policy may backfire in academic settings. Specifically, the majority fears a zero tolerance policy will discourage male professors from interacting with female advisees with the same zeal with which they interact with male advisees. We believe the onus should be on a professor to engage with all of his or her advisees in an equitable manner.

Finally, the majority claims a zero tolerance policy will discourage victims from reporting perpetrators because they fear being a catalyst to a perpetrator’s termination. The majority fails to recognize the status quo is even more problematic, and creates a stronger disincentive to report than does a zero tolerance policy. Under the status quo policy, a victim who chooses to report an alleged instance of sexual harassment must do so with the understanding they will likely interact with the perpetrator for the remainder of their undergraduate or graduate school career. Given the reputational damage inflicted by accusations and findings of responsibility, it seems intuitive a victim would fear retaliation. Retaliation is significantly more likely to occur when a perpetrator remains within the community.

For these reasons, we respectfully dissent.

Carolyn Liziewski '18
Gabriel Swagel '20
Jack Whelan '19