Skip to content
The sham of sex harassment training
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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Harassment: A Friday Op-Ed article on sexual harassment training said employers with more than 50 employees had to provide the training to each employee. Only supervisors are required to take the training. —
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.
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.
I 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.
So why am I am being so inflexible on this issue? Why not simply take the training and be done with it? 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Alexander McPherson is a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at UC Irvine's school of biological sciences.