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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Dept. Chair responds to Hindley

Published: November 9, 2007
Section: Opinions

In recent days, controversy has arisen as a result of actions taken by the University to fulfill its commitment to safeguarding the safety, dignity, and well-being of all its members, including guaranteeing the rights of students to learn in an environment free of harassment and hostility. Individuals of goodwill may differ in their opinions on this matter. But it is important for opinions to be grounded in as much knowledge of the actual processes and events in question as possible, consistent with protection of the confidentiality and privacy of those involved.

The process leading up to the present controversy began when a number of students complained about statements made by Professor Donald Hindley in class, which they felt were inappropriate, discriminatory, and harassing. They expressed their concerns to me, as chair of the Department of Politics. The chair often hears complaints from students, and in almost all instances advises students to discuss the issue of concern in a responsible manner with the faculty member in question. Given the serious nature of these complaints, the desire of the students for confidentiality, and the existence of an articulated university policy for handling precisely this category of complaints, I felt obligated to convey them to the Dean of Arts and Sciences as a matter of both policy, and commitment to diversity and equality.

After careful consideration and consultations, the Dean determined that the complaints warranted an investigation, as prescribed by the Universitys Non-Discrimination and Harassment Problem Resolution and Appeal Procedures for Claims of

Harrassment/Discrimination against Staff or Faculty Policy. This is a formal procedure that is used anytime a staff or faculty member is alleged as having made inappropriate or discriminatory comments. It was reviewed in advance of adoption and approved by the Faculty Senate of the university. One of the key pieces of this procedure is that both the person or persons who made the complaint, and the person being investigated, are accorded confidentiality. Confidentiality is essential for the person making the complaint in order to protect him or her from retaliation by the supervisor or faculty person, or even from peers. Confidentiality is similarly essential for the person against whom the complaint is lodged, to protect against unwarranted damage to reputation. An investigation is meant to determine if the complaint is valid, not to create a public arena wherein a person might be judged on factors other than the nature of the complaint itself.

Following the recommendation of the Dean, the investigation of this case was conducted by professional staff in the Department of Human Resources, consistent with the protocol described in the policy. The investigator concluded that the complaints were substantiated. The Provost issued a letter to Professor Hindley describing the steps being taken in response to this determination, consistent with the universitys moral and legal obligation to take prompt and effective remedial action. Professor Hindley chose to make the issue public by reading the letter out to his class and initiating a campaign of emails. It should be noted that the Provost included, as attachments to that letter, copies of the non-harrassment policy, including a statement laying out the procedures for appeal, which afforded Professor Hindley the opportunity to preserve the confidentiality of this matter.

The university continues to regard the issue as a confidential personnel matter, and I remain committed to preserving the confidentiality of student complainants, which is why I am able to comment only on the process involved, not the substance of the issue. I am able to address the issue at all, and to note Professor Hindley by name, only because he has made these events a matter of the public record. However, the main issue here, in my view, is how the university is to respond to concerns of the type raised by the students in this instance.

The university policy consists of a defined process, which includes careful consideration of the complaints and response of the individual or individuals who are the object of the complaint, as articulated in an interview arranged for the purpose of making the student concerns known, and giving the individual(s) an opportunity to respond to them while still protected by the confidentiality of the process. Professor Hindley acknowledges, in one of the many emails he has sent out in recent days, that such an interview took place.

In my view, it is unfortunate that this matter was made public in this manner. It is unfortunate for the students involved in the issue directly, for students in Professor Hindleys classes, and for his faculty colleagues, as it cut off the possibility of resolution through confidential actions that might have satisfied all parties. Despite what has transpired in recent days, however, the fact that Professor Hindley has now chosen to activate an appeals process holds out hope that, in the end, a constructive result may yet be achieved that will affirm the universitys commitments to mutual respect in our classrooms and our community.