The gentleman doth protest too much


by Jeff Fecke • 11/23/08 • California prof demands freedom from sexual harassment training.

Poor Prof. Alexander McPherson. A professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Irvine, McPherson was recently denied his academic freedom.

How, you ask, did that happen? Was he told what he had to teach in the classroom? Harrangued about work he’s published? Told that his public support for John McCain was going to get him fired? No, nothing so benign. McPherson was told that he had to attend a mandatory sexual harassment seminar along with all other employees of UC Irvine.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, will available for sale in September.

Clearly, he is all about sticking it to the man:

Four years ago, the governor signed Assembly Bill 1825 into law, requiring all California employers with more than 50 people to provide sexual harassment training for each of their employees. The University of California raised no objection and submitted to its authority.

But I didn’t. I am a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at UC Irvine, and I have consistently refused, on principle, to participate in the sexual harassment training that the state and my employers seem to think is so important.

Because when your employer tells you that you are required to attend a seminar as a condition of your employment, that’s completely optional, as many unemployed people can tell you.

For a while, it didn’t seem to matter much that I had refused. I (and fellow scofflaws) were periodically notified that we were not in compliance, and we were advised to get with the program like everybody else. Then the university began warning me that my supervisory responsibilities would be taken away if I did not promptly comply.

Last month, the university finally followed through, sending me a letter announcing that my laboratory and the students I oversaw were to be immediately turned over to other university officials and faculty. I continued to refuse to take sexual harassment training, and do so now.

Now, at this point, everyone who’s ever been employed by anyone is pretty much saying to themselves, “Well, duh.” I mean, all of us have been shepherded into pointless meetings on everything from ergonomics to the new 401(k) plan to why our health plan costs just jumped 43,000 percent. And when they’re mandatory, you go. You may grumble that you have better things to do; sometimes those better things are work, and sometimes it’s talking fantasy football, but whatever. You go, because the entity that’s paying you for your time has decided that for this particular hour, this is how you are going to use your time.

In this case, it’s not even McPherson’s employer saying this; it’s the people of California, through their duly elected representatives. And McPherson isn’t even part of an independent company that could argue their rights to promote harassment in the workplace are being infringed; McPherson works for the State of California. He is out of legs, arms, and any other body parts to stand on, and should probably just go to the damn seminar.

But he’s taking a bold, brave stand:

am not normally confrontational, so I sought to find a means to resolve the conflict. I proposed the following: I would take the training if the university would provide me with a brief, written statement absolving me of any suspicion, guilt or complicity regarding sexual harassment. I wanted any possible stigma removed. “Fulfilling this requirement,” said the statement I asked them to approve, “in no way implies, suggests or indicates that the university currently has any reason to believe that Professor McPherson has ever sexually harassed any student or any person under his supervision during his 30-year career with the University of California.”

The university, however, declined to provide me with any such statement, which poses the question: Why not? It is a completely innocuous, unobjectionable statement that they should have been willing to write for any faculty member whose record is as free of stain as is my own. The immediate reply of the administration was that if I didn’t comply with the law, I would be placed on unpaid leave.

Well, yeah. If my boss asks me to come to a meeting, and I tell her that I will, but only if she signs a statement saying the company does not know anything about me stealing a gross of paper clips, my guess is that not only won’t she sign, but she’ll ask me why it’s so important that I sign — and begin auditing the supply cabinet.

I’m not saying that McPherson has in fact been harassing students. But it is weird how he wants administrative cover about it, especially since he hasn’t been brought into this seminar because he’s harassing students. Indeed, he’s in the same basic seminar that every single middle-sized and bigger employer in California is running. It doesn’t get any less selective than that.

So why is it he’s so concerned that he’s somehow been singled out? And why is he so afraid to go?

So why am I am being so inflexible on this issue? Why not simply take the training and be done with it?

Yeah, that’s what I asked.

There are several reasons.

First of all, I believe the training is a disgraceful sham. As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ, primarily designed to relieve the university of liability in the case of lawsuits. I have not been shown any evidence that this training will discourage a harasser or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment.

And he should know, because…er, he just knows it won’t be helpful. Especially since he hasn’t been through the training, and knows nothing about it. And he’s going to stand firm on this by demanding that his employer defy the law of his state, because he doesn’t like it.

Guess what, binky? There are all sorts of laws of questionable value out there, from the laws criminalizing marijuana to the recently passed repeal of basic human rights for gay and lesbian couples. If you don’t like them, though, you work to change the law. You can disobey the law too — but you can’t be surprised when it turns out that the punishments the law spelled out are applied to you.

What’s more, the state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repugnant and offensive. I find it offensive not only because of the insinuations it carries and the potential stigma it implies, but also because I am being required to do it for political reasons. The fact is that there is a vocal political/cultural interest group promoting this silliness as part of a politically correct agenda that I don’t particularly agree with.

Shorter Alexander McPherson: the world was better when you could tell a freshman that her tits looked nice, and that she could guarantee herself an A if she’d just do one little thing for him.

I’m sorry, Professor, if that seems like I’m stigmatizing you. But you’re the one who’s so afraid of being told what normal adults should know — that demeaning and disrespecting people because of their gender is wrong — that you won’t even be in the same room as someone saying so. The “politically correct” argument against sexual harassment is simply that sexual harassment is wrong. If you disagree with that message, the implication is obvious. At the very least, you don’t see anything wrong with sexual harassment.

The imposition of training that has a political cast violates my academic freedom and my rights as a tenured professor. The university has already nullified my right to supervise my laboratory and the students I teach. It has threatened my livelihood and, ultimately, my position at the university. This for failing to submit to mock training in sexual harassment, a requirement that was never a condition of my employment at the University of California 30 years ago, nor when I came to UCI 11 years ago.

And therefore, nothing can ever change.

Look, Professor, things have changed a lot in 30 years. In 1978, it was still considered perfectly appropriate for the boys’ club to leer at women in the workplace. And some of the men who came of age at that time — i.e., you — never grew up past that point.

That’s why we have seminars like this — to let you know that 2008 is not 1978, and these things aren’t okay. Are sexual harassment seminars perfect? Of course not. But they’re taking a strong stand that says women in the workplace — and in your case, the workplace is also a school — deserve equal respect and dignity, that they should not be treated worse because of their gender.

So what’s wrong with that? Even if you think the seminar’s hokey at times, why don’t you agree with its basic premise — that women are equal?

The question contains the answer, of course.

Interestingly, I have received many letters of encouragement — about 25% of them from women. The comments have been rich with words like “demeaning,” “oppressive,” “politically driven” and “indoctrination.” Other phrases included “unctuous twaddle” and “sanctimonious half-wits.”

I’m not surprised that some women are praising this — like Dr. Helen, who naturally loves this column, there are always some who are willing to throw others under the bus to be the “good kind of girl.”

But I’m sorry, I’ve been through sexual harassment seminars. And while they were at time eye-rollingly earnest, I’ve never seen them as demeaning. I don’t harass women, though — and frankly, view it as important that I not do so inadvertently. I view that as important because I know too many of my fellow men have harassed women in the workplace for decades before I got there, and that only by my being willing to work to undo their sins can men like me help to level the playing field.

McPherson closes with a line that shows that for all his education, he has no clue what he’s talking about:

Sexual harassment is a politically charged issue. The people of California have granted no authority to the state to impose narrow political and cultural opinions on individual citizens.

Except they have; you even cited the exact bill, Assembly Bill 1825, which was passed by the duly elected representatives of the citizens of the state, and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The people of California have given that authority to the state, and said that they do in fact want the state to be tolerant of women’s rights in the workplace. Perhaps that will change some day; given that California, as we all know, has a pretty viable initiative and referendum system, McPherson could be working to get this bill’s repeal on the ballot.

But of course, such an attempt would fail, because we don’t think that women are second-class citizens, at least not so much as we once did. And while there are far too many holdovers, most of us don’t see much wrong with asking people to learn to work with others in a respectful manner. There’s a word for people who do: sexists. Which is exactly what McPherson is. And exactly why it’s good for the students at UC Irvine that he’s losing his supervisory position over this. Because I wouldn’t want my daughter working with a sexist professor. Indeed, I don’t want anyone’s daughter — or anyone’s son — working with him. Any man who would put hatred of women at such a great level of import is a person all of us are better off ignoring.