Monday, April 11, 2011

Commentary on Yale and "Dear Colleague"

There has been a significant amount of press about both the complaint filed by Yale students alleging the university has not done enough to remedy sexual harassment and the Obama administration's "Dear Colleague" letter about dealing with harassment. Often articles and commentary discuss the two together. What has been interesting is some of the backlash. Wendy Kaminer had a piece in the Atlantic last week expressing her libertarian feminist opinion on the complaint and Dear Colleague letter, which again we should note is not a change in the policy--just a reminder. Kaminer, the lonely libertarian feminist, says that the complaint (and I would assume by extension the whole complaint process) is more feminine than feminist because it relies on "the assumption that women are incapable of fending for themselves in the marketplace of epithets or ideas, the belief that women are rendered helpless by misogynist speech and the sexist tantrums of their male peers." Really? We haven't learned by now, especially with preponderance of bullying among young children, that the whole "sticks and stones" argument just doesn't hold water anymore (if it ever did). That words are actions too, that they create an atmosphere, that they construct and reveal power relations. There is no such thing as "pure speech"--words are not just words. I think Kaminer is wrong; this is not "feminine timidity" and women (and some men) hiding behind government rules by using the complaint process. This is feminism. It's actually classic liberal feminism: using the tools already in existence in the current system to change the conditions to make them more equitable for women so they can do things like have equal access to education. I don't see taking action as in any way behaving timidly. Amy Alkon at Mensnewsdaily basically reprints a large section of Kaminer's editorial but with the headline: Feminists Looking to Big Government to Act all Big Daddy. Yeah, words have no power. Also of note is what and who is not being talked about. In her column, Wendy Murphy, lawyer, legal analyst, and adjunct law professor notes that she herself has filed complaints with OCR over the policies on sexual harassment at several campuses--most notably Harvard Law School. The school is "under investigation for a policy of delaying sexual assault hearings on campus until law enforcement officials complete their investigation. This tactic – known as “running out the clock” – is used by many schools as a way of avoiding oversight by OCR because when a school puts off resolving a case until the students involved are on the verge of graduation, violations of Title IX cannot be remedied in any meaningful way." Murphy surmises that Harvard will change its policy before OCR finishes its investigation and that the institution will be praised for doing so. The difference in the publicity is likely because of the filers. Anyone can file an OCR complaint, and it is probably of greater interest to the media and the rest of us that it was 16 current and former Yale students who are sharing their stories. Plus the story allows media outlets to pull up the rather infamous incidents at Yale from the past few years.