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Dorms Plan Discussions of Harassment Survey

President Charles M. Vest and Associate Provost Samuel Jay Keyser announced on Monday a new initiative to spur discussions on sexual harassment at undergraduate residences and all over campus, as part of an ongoing effort "to create a community where all members treat each other with decency and civility."

They distributed to all undergraduates, faculty and administrative staff a letter from them and the results of a survey on harassment conducted by undergraduates and the tutors and housemasters at two undergraduate dormitories, Baker House and East Campus.

Dr. Vest and Dr. Keyser, in their letter to members of the MIT community, wrote, "The image that emerges from the survey is disturbing, but it is one that we must view honestly if we are to deal with the issue of harassment openly and realistically." They said, "The findings are consistent, both qualitatively and quantitatively, with reports of harassing behavior at other universities. This gives us no comfort. MIT can and should do better.

"We are distributing the report throughout our community with the specific request that all of us-faculty, students, and staff-work together to develop ways to reduce, if not eliminate, sexual harassment and harassment of all kinds at MIT."

The Dean for Student Affairs Office is developing plans with the individual living groups for discussions about sexual harassment and the survey.

The survey reported that 47 percent of the women and nine percent of the men had experiences at MIT of harassment-sexual or other kinds-which they found upsetting or very upsetting, according to an article written for the The Faculty Newsletter by Professor William B. Watson, associate professor of political science. The article was signed also by Professor Kenneth A. Oye, associate professor of political science, who performed the data analysis for the study. Professor Watson and Myra Harrison, his wife, are the housemasters at Baker House. Professor Oye and his wife, Willa Michener, are the housemasters at East Campus.

"As teachers and supervisors, we should realize that these harassment experiences can have a marked impact on our students' ability to function in our classrooms and laboratories," wrote Professor Watson. "Twenty-four percent of the women and four percent of the men reported that their experience with harassment interfered unreasonably with their education and work performance."

The Vest-Keyser letter and the survey report is the most recent initiative in MIT's stepped-up efforts to combat harassment. Professor Keyser, associate provost for Institute life, chaired the Committee on Sexual Harassment, which was convened in 1989 and issued its report on sexual harassment in October, 1990.

The report has led to a number of activities and programs. These have included:

  • a revised Institute policy on harassment;
  • "Stopping Sexual Harassment," a guide to MIT offices and individuals who can offer assistance in dealing with harassment;
  • orientation programs on harassment, which were conducted for all first year students in September of 1990 and 1991;
  • individual workshops, held in many of the academic and administrative departments throughout the university;
  • ������three lengthy training sessions for all graduate residents of undergraduate houses and some housemasters about harassment and sexual harassment;
  • residential programs on harassment, held at 11 of the 44 undergraduate residential living groups;
  • The Baker House-East Campus survey, taken last May;
  • a revised sexual harassment survey, including questions about gender discrimination, taken last week among the independent living groups and McCormick Hall, the all-women's dorm.

Professor Oye, discussing the Baker House-East Campus survey said, "On sexual harassment, the good news is that there are fairly minor discrepancies between women and men on what is meant by harassment." Agreement is very close on unwanted letters or phone calls of a sexual nature, unwanted leaning over, cornering, deliberate touching or pinching, unwanted pressure for sexual favors, and attempted or actual rape or sexual assault.

"The bad news," Dr. Oye continued, "is that the experience of women and men is so different. Very, very clearly, the experience some young women are having at MIT is not acceptable.

"I'm very encouraged at the initial response at East Campus today," Professor Oye said. "People, particularly women, are speaking very positively about the fact that the report is being released in this way. I am sure the survey is going to be a spur to creative discussion on the campus. I think it may make discussion between men and women easier and more effective. Folks will be able to talk about other people's experiences and ask, 'Do you feel the same way?' It's a lot less confrontational than talking directly about your own experiences."

Professor Oye, noting that "virtually all members of the MIT community . . . believe in basing discussions on evidence," analyzed the data from the 359 questionnaires returned by students at Baker House and East Campus last May. The response rate was 49 percent, ranging from 56 percent of first year students and dropping each succeeding year to 37 percent of seniors. Fifty-six percent (158) of the women and 43 percent (194) of the men responded. Seventy-eight students provided comments which were quoted after being edited to protect the privacy and identity of the students. Asked for their main ethnic or racial group, the 359 students reported themselves as 199 white, 89 Asian/Asian Americans, 26 Hispanics, 15 African Americans and 21 "other."

On racial harassment, the responses from racial and ethnic minorities indicated that more than half the Hispanics had experienced unwanted teasing, jokes, remarks or questions based on ethnicity or race. Nearly half the African-Americans reported such incidents, as did more than 40 percent of the Asian/Asian-Americans, more than a third of the "other," and about 30 percent of the white students. Attempted or actual assault on the basis of race or ethnicity was reported by one Asian/Asian American in the group surveyed.

In the article prepared for The Faculty Newsletter, Professor Watson wrote, "One must conclude from these survey results that women at MIT are forced to live and work in an environment that is much more hostile, much more demeaning, and much more dangerous than it is for men. . . It is . . .encountered not just by a small fraction but by the majority of our women students.

"Fifty-eight percent of the women reported they had been subjected to unwanted pressure for dates; 47 percent reported they had received unwanted letters or phone calls of a sexual nature; 64 percent were subjected to unwanted deliberate touching and the like; 78 percent were subjected to unwanted teasing of a sexual nature; and although not a majority of the women, still an astonishing 32 percent reported they had been subjected to unwanted pressure for sexual favors and 13 percent said they had been subjected to an actual or attempted rape or to some other form of sexual assault. However high these figures may seem, they are consistent with the results of other recent surveys of college women."

Comments in the survey included criticism of the questionnaire for its omission of questions about gender discrimination. Professor Watson commented, "Given the large number of added comments we received on this issue and the character of many other comments from women throughout the survey, gender discrimination appears to be an important factor eroding the quality of life and work of our women students."

He noted that faculty or other persons in authority at MIT were rarely identified with the most blatant types of sexual harassment, but he expressed concern about the "alarmingly high figures" of 12 percent of women who said persons in authority had subjected them to "unwanted teasing, jokes, remarks or questions of a sexual nature," or "unwanted sexually suggestive looks or gestures."

He concluded, "If a survey like this helps us to understand the pervasive and corrosive nature of sexual harassment (and gender discrimination) at MIT, and especially if it helps us to do something about improving the living and working environment of our women students, then it will have been worthwhile to get this news out."

A version of this article appeared in the March 4, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 22).

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