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Nobel art of self defence

Boston University is defending charges of sexual harassment against its Nobel laureate. Tim Cornwell reports

Boston University's decision to stand squarely by poet and professor Derek Walcott may be something of a watershed in the recent history of sexual harassment. A former student 30 years his junior has sued Walcott, alleging he turned down her play for a university production after she rejected an offer to share his bed.

In the politically correct 1990s, US universities are more often accused of jumping the gun on harassment charges, disciplining or even firing faculty staff before they have had the chance to show they are not, in fact, clammy-handed sex pests. Boston, by contrast, has appointed a lawyer who describes the charges against Walcott as an "outrage". Officials say they "entirely believe" his version of events.

Walcott's treatment could hardly be farther from that of Cornell University professor James Maas, a noted and popular psychologist, whom a faculty panel found guilty of engaging in "a pattern of harassment" involving four women in 1994. His worst crime was apparently making them feel "uncomfortable" (with gifts, hugs, and the occasional kiss on the lips).

Cornell went out of its way to say Maas "was not found to have either had, or sought, an intimate sexual relationship" with students nor had he engaged in "abusive behaviour". He was denied a pay rise. But far more damaging, he says, was the blow to an international reputation. He is suing Cornell, his employer of 30 years, for $1.5 million.

Maas's lawsuit is aimed at the internal procedures by which Cornell found him guilty, devised by fellow faculty members. He says he was denied his basic rights, such as facing his accusers and being represented by counsel.

It is on such grounds in recent years that a number of professors disciplined for sexual harassment have sued, and successfully so. In a string of recent cases from Washington state to New Hampshire, they have ended up winning substantial cash settlements, back pay and even reinstatement after being fired.

Universities' procedures for dealing with harassment charges tend to be badly written in the first place, and then misapplied, experts say. Very often they simply do not stand up to legal scrutiny, regardless of the facts.

Boston, of course, has several good reasons for standing firm. It says Walcott's accuser, former television journalist and aspiring playwright Nicole Niemi, never used the university's own complaints system while a student. Suing 18 months after the alleged event, she has named the university as a defendant in her $500,000 law suit.

Boston, says one observer, does not have enough Nobel prizewinners to write them off. "I've watched sexual harassment in academe for a very long time," says Bernice Sanders, a specialist in the field who stands firmly on the side of the harassed. "And one of the things I notice is that if you like someone, you overlook it. If you don't like them and catch them in sexual harassment, it's a wonderful way to get rid of them."

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