December 15, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Provost Kotlikoff and VP Opperman on ‘Being a Graduate Student in a Harvey Weinstein World at Cornell University’

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To the Editor:

We are writing in regard to the recent guest column, “Being a Graduate Student in a Harvey Weinstein World at Cornell University,” to emphasize that sexual harassment or coercion of any kind has no place at Cornell. The author is absolutely correct that graduate students and, indeed, all members of the Cornell community should be protected from sexual coercion and that academic success should never be linked to such pressures. For that reason, it is important to be aware that Cornell Policy 6.4 clearly prohibits such misconduct.

That policy defines “Sexual Coercion” as follows:

“To obtain compliance with sexual acts by using physically or emotionally manipulative actions or statements or expressly or implicitly threatening the person or another person with negative actions. Examples of sexual coercion include statements such as “I will ruin your reputation,” or “I will tell everyone,” or “your career (or education) at Cornell will be over.”

The policy also defines Sexual Harassment as follows:

A form of protected-status harassment that constitutes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other oral, written, visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with the individual’s work or academic performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or learning environment under any of the following conditions:

  1. Submission to, or rejection of, such conduct either explicitly or implicitly is (1) made a term or condition of an individual’s employment or academic status, or (2) used as a basis for an employment or academic decision affecting that person; or
  2. The conduct is sufficiently (1) persistent, severe or pervasive, and (2) has the purpose or effect of altering the conditions of an individual’s employment or academic pursuits in a way that a reasonable person would find abusive, hostile, or offensive.

All members of the Cornell community should know that violations of Policy 6.4 by faculty or staff subject the individual to discipline up to and including termination from employment.

It is also important to be aware that the existing policy on Romantic and Consensual Relationships states:

“[t]he relationships between students and their teachers, advisors, coaches, and others further holding positions of authority over them should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest, exploitation, or personal bias. Given the inherent power differential, the possibility of intentional or unintentional abuse of that power should always be borne in mind.”

We agree with the guest author that this policy needs to be clearer and stronger, particularly in clearly outlining proscribed relationships, and setting forth appropriate procedures for reporting as well as enforcement of discipline against those who violate the policy. As the writer notes, the Faculty Senate and GPSA’s joint Consensual Relationships Policy Committee is developing refinements to that policy to strengthen it and has been tasked with bringing a proposal back to President Pollack by May 1.

The university is also committed to continuing robust prevention and education programs, which are critical to reducing and — we hope — to eliminating incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment on campus.

Michael Kotlikoff
Provost, Cornell University

Mary Opperman
vice president and chief human resources officer, Cornell University