The Chronicle of Higher Education has a powerful story about the Harvard professor Jorge Domínguez, who has kept his tenured job — and moved up within it — for decades despite repeated, substantiated claims of sexual harassment. That goes back to the early 1980s, surely a different world. Of course, after #MeToo, 2016 seems like a different world. But it’s not really.
Anyway, here’s a story to consider. This is from Page 1 of the Diamondback, the University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper, from November 19, 2003. (And thanks to the McKeldin Library staff for reminding me how to use the microfilm machine.)
This concerns Maryland sociology professor David Segal and a female graduate student in our program at the time; the story includes comments from Mady Segal, David’s wife, who was also a professor here. Both are now retired with honorary emeritus status at the university. (The student, who is not named, although she was identifiable to people familiar with the program at the time, consented to my posting this story.)
It’s important to think about the context, both institutionally and historically, that would produce a story like this, and what that means for women reporting harassment then, and now. (The Diamondback reporter did not respond to a request for comment.)
Because the photocopy from microfilm is hard to read, I extracted the text and include it below, but here is a PDF of the copy, too. A few questions follow the text.
Permanent open-door policy: Sociology professor says flawed sexual harassment policy ruined his reputation
Photo caption: Sociology professor David Segal now fears being accused of sexual harassment if he closes the door to his office when talking with a female student.
By Megan Watzin, Senior staff writer
When students visit David Segal’s office now, he either leaves the door open or explicitly asks the student if it is OK if he closes the door.
The sociology professor accused of sexual and ethnic harassment by a female graduate student two years ago said he never got to defend himself because of flaws in the university’s process for handling sexual harassment claims.
Segal was eventually found innocent of all five charges against him – bias, conflict of interest, discrimination, sexual harassment and ethnic harassment. However, he maintains the charges – which he insists are false – have permanently damaged his reputation and career. He is pushing for the University Senate to make significant revisions to the university’s sexual harassment process and policy this year.
Segal said he was accused in 2001 of telling a Mafia joke and a sexual joke involving Italian food that offended the graduate student, who is Italian. The other three charges were quickly dismissed by the university attorneys as impossible to prove.
The graduate student’s identity is protected by the university, and she could not be reached for comment for this story.
He insists the graduate student made up the charges, which is a violation of the student code of conduct. However, Segal was unable to file a complaint accusing her of violating the student code of conduct because of a single piece of paper, a detailed signed statement of the accusations against him, that may never have been completed when the harassment charges were initially filed.
“The accusations were lies and I could prove they were lies, but I couldn’t get the statement from the accuser,” he said. “It was like the Spanish Inquisition and the Stalinist purges during the Cold War. There was no justice.”
John Zacker, director of the Office of Judicial Programs, which handles about 600 cases of alleged misconduct each year, said the burden of evidence that false claims were made is the responsibility of the claiming party.
Segal said he suspected the university attorneys were hiding the statement from him, so he asked the associate provost, the provost, the faculty ombudsman, university President Dan Mote’s chief of staff and Mote himself for their help in getting it. None were successful – the statement may have never existed.
Segal said the statement would have provided the necessary evidence to file a complaint against his accuser, but it remains unclear whether it should have been completed in the first place because the procedures for filing a harassment claim are vague.
There are two avenues for filing a sexual harassment claim – formal and informal. The graduate student officially filed an informal claim. Senate Chair Joel Cohen said the problem with the current policy is there is no clear difference between the two processes, and therefore it is unclear what steps should be followed.
Two years later
The graduate student remains in good standing at the university and was also granted several requests after she made the accusations, Segal said. He said she asked for continued funding for her assistantship under him, and extension for taking her two doctoral exams and for Segal and his wife, who also works in the sociology department, not to be allowed to sit on the panel that creates and grades her doctoral exams.
Two years later, she has not taken her doctoral exams, Segal said. She had originally been preparing to take an exam in military sociology – Segal’s specialty area – but said she could no longer take that test because of him, so she was granted extra time to prepare for a different exam.
Segal noticed he was still listed as her adviser a few months ago, he said, and immediately asked sociology department Chair William Falk to assign her to a different adviser.
Segal and his wife, Mady, who also mentored the student, said she had been performing poorly shortly before the accusations were made. Segal sent her emails telling her she was not doing her job and was at risk of failing.
“This is a graduate student who is not fulfilling her work requirements and was not making adequate progress toward a degree, and was looking for a way to blame someone else and postpone her doctoral exams,” Mady Segal said. “She was trying to excuse her failings.”
Time for a change
Segal was summoned to meet with university attorneys Sept. 24, 2001, and was informed he had been accused of sexual harassment. That same day a tornado touched down on the campus and significantly damaged the Segals’ nearby house. At that point, there was already an ongoing investigation, which Segal said he only found out about from Falk.
Mady Segal sat on the Committee on Professional Issues in 1987 when it authored the current sexual harassment policy. She said the way the policy was carried out in her husband’s case was not the way it was intended to work.
“The original intent was there would be an informal resolution process when there is a complaint,” she said. “I think because of the perception of legal requirements on campus, they have eliminated an informal procedure, because any time there is an allegation, it goes straight to the president’s attorneys.”
The Segals advocate a clear informal process be laid out for filing a complaint – one in which the accuser is made aware they can contact the department head or human relations department to mediate the situation. Under the current policy, as soon as a complaint alleging harassment is received by a university employee, that employee is required to contact university attorneys, according to Senate documents.
“The process that’s being used now is bypassing an informal mediation by getting the attorneys involved,” Mady Segal said.
Mote’s chief of staff, Ann Wylie, made recommendations to the three-member Senate panel now examining the policy. The panel is expected to make a report outlining recommended changes by the end of the semester.
“I looked to see … how they handled cases, and the fact of the matter is the whole system that we have in place now is set up to protect the person making the complaint,” Wylie said. “It is appropriate with all policies to just sit down and go back over it and make sure it protects the innocent.”
After being accused and not being able to make charges against the accuser, Segal wrote to the Senate a list of recommended changes that stressed the student code of conduct be more strictly enforced in the cases of false allegations. He also suggested a written form stating the accusations be filled out in both formal and informal sexual harassment cases, and that the accused have access to it.
“People can file false claims and get away with it,” Segal said. “And people who file justifiable claims become victims again.”
The Senate Human Relations Committee found that similar questions needed to be addressed before assigning the panel the task of examining the policy.
Roger Candelaria, the campus compliance officer, said the number of sexual harassment claims that turn out to be false or the result of a student attempting to abuse the system represents only a very tiny portion of the roughly once-a-week complaints.
Segal said he doesn’t feel he can have close relationships with female students anymore. He stopped enjoying teaching – his one true passion – for two years. He said this semester is the first time since the allegations he has started to enjoy being in the classroom again.
“As this all unfolded, the campus became a frightening place for me. I go into the field with soldiers. I’ve been to dangerous places. The university was a sanctuary,” Segal said. “I had trouble preparing for classes and sleep disturbances.”
Segal has worked at the university since 1976 and has constantly received job offers from other institutions. He said he always turned them down out of a loyalty to this university. After the sexual harassment allegations, he considered for the first time leaving. But at that time, all the job offers stopped.
“I’m damaged goods,” he said.
Mady, who has been married to him for 37 years, said she doesn’t think her husband will ever be the same.
“It was a terrible blow to his reputation,” she said. “Nothing very serious was alleged, but it was a big deal to him. David has always been a very happy person … He was always cheerful. He has lost a lot of that cheerfulness.”
Questions an editor today might ask the reporter before running this story:
- What does it mean that he “never got to defend himself”? Actually, what was the accusation, specifically, and how was it adjudicated to produce an “innocent” result?
- Was the sexual harassment accusation really about a single joke involving Italian food, and if so, how is keeping his office door open relevant?
- Is there some emergency that requires printing this story before the student can be reached to offer her version of events?
- Did you verify with anyone the student’s academic status, which is offered as her motive to lie?
- Followup question: How does this compare with more recent debates about due process for accused sexual harassers, such as those described by Laura Kipnis in Unwanted Advances?
- Lots of questions.
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