Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct Claims and Your Role as an Instructor

Illustration showing a standing male instructor making intimidating gesture to seated female student.In light of current events, a post covering how instructors can avoid discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct seemed relevant. Over the summer I revised the Center for Educational Resources manual for teaching assistants, Making the Difference. The manual lists general teaching resources available at Hopkins – e.g., TA-specific services offered by the library, services offered to students with disabilities, faculty responsibilities in working with such students, etc. Printed copies of the TA Manual are distributed at the TA Orientation in September and a PDF is available on our Teaching Academy website. I’ve taken the following advice from that document with minor changes.

The instructor-student relationship carries the potential of becoming grounds for claims of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct because of the inherent power imbalance. Instructors should be mindful of this inequity and maintain appropriate and professional relationships with students. To this end, it is better to be too formal than to be too casual. Dressing professionally, keeping the door open during office hours, otherwise only meeting with students in public places and during daytime hours, and treating all students in the course equally will help create a natural sense of formality.

You can help minimize claims of discrimination by making it clear to students that you treat everyone equally. This may sound self-evident, but it is not so simple. Remember that you must maintain a professional relationship with ALL of the students. If some students perceive that you are especially friendly to other members of the class, they are likely to assume that you are discriminating and will not grade objectively. Maintain a professional distance, and be equally friendly with and accessible to all students.

Do not get too personally involved with your students, and absolutely do not become romantically involved with a student at your institution, undergraduate or graduate. Due to the nature of power relations in the classroom specifically, and in your department and on campus more generally, a fine line distinguishes romance from sexual harassment, and potentially, sexual misconduct.

Harassment is unwelcome behavior that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive. Harassment can occur in different forms. Sexual harassment, whether between people of different sexes or the same sex, is defined to include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when:

  1. submission to such conduct is made implicitly or explicitly a term or condition of an individual’s participation in an educational program;
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for academic evaluation or advancement; or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational environment.

Most institutions have an office that works to comply with affirmative action and equal opportunity laws, and investigates complaints of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. At Johns Hopkins, it is the Office of Institutional Equity; the Office of the Dean of Student Life may also be a resource for instructors at JHU. If you become aware of a discrimination, harassment, or sexual misconduct issue during the course of your duties, you should contact the appropriate office at your college or university.

Familiarize yourself with the policies at your institution. At Johns Hopkins, if a student discloses an issue involving discrimination, harassment, or sexual misconduct, an instructor is obligated to report it. Instructors confronted with such disclosures should not promise confidentiality, but should make the students aware of the available complaint process, and refer them to the appropriate office.

It is to your advantage to be proactive against student claims of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. Treat all students equally, be aware of the power you have as faculty and avoid situations where that power is used inappropriately, be professional in your interactions with students, and acquaint yourself with relevant institutional policies and your duties in regards to those. Create a culture of respect in your classroom so that all students can feel safe.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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