When college or university faculty members are accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, the institution is tasked with assessing and investigating the allegations and responding appropriately. The goals may seem straightforward: address the situation, help remedy the effects, and try to help prevent the situation from happening again. The realities are far more complicated with institutions needing to balance a wide range of interests and ensure all parties are treated fairly throughout the process.
One challenge garnering attention is the tension between privacy and public accountability.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier publicly addressed this issue from the House Floor last January as she discussed the broader topic of harassment in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
Speier said some “universities protect predatory professors with slaps on the wrist and secrecy” and the broader issue of “how to effectively deal with sexual harassment in academia” remains a systemic struggle. She expressed outrage at the idea that a faculty member could be found responsible for sexual harassment in one setting, leave the position, and take up a new faculty role at a different institution. She stated she believed one method for reducing harassment would be to have severe and visible consequences for that harassment. She said she planned to introduce legislation to “require universities to inform other universities of the final results of a disciplinary proceeding.”
To illustrate her point, she also read into the record parts of an investigation report from the University of Arizona.
The report concerned Dr. Timothy Slater, a former University of Arizona professor, and allegations he had harassed students within the Astronomy department. According to Speier, the report had been sealed for over ten years while Dr. Slater continued to teach both at the University of Arizona and elsewhere.
The situation highlights the tension between the privacy interests of those involved in a disciplinary process (as complainants, respondents, or witnesses) and public or visible accountability in more ways than one.
Speier discussed Dr. Slater’s situation to support the idea that for reducing harassment, the need to share disciplinary findings is more important than the privacy interests of an accused faculty member. She did not discuss how the law would affect the privacy concerns or expectations of complainants and victims or witnesses who may also be involved in an investigation into harassment allegations.
The question of competing interests took on a different light when Speier created a public record of the disciplinary report about Dr. Slater.
According to Dr. Slater’s recently filed lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents, the report was a confidential document the University of Arizona unlawfully disclosed in 2010 after it received a public record request.
Dr. Slater’s Complaint, filed in the Maricopa County Superior Court (CV2016-013953) in early November, raises claims for breach of confidentiality, defamation, false light invasion of privacy, public disclosure of private information, and negligence.
Dr. Slater alleges the University violated public record laws and the Arizona Administrative Code by disclosing the report.
Additionally, Dr. Slater denies many of the substantive allegations of wrongdoing Speier called “lurid and disturbing.”
Dr. Slater states in his Complaint the report is false and through disclosing the report, the University made actionably false statements about him and invaded his privacy. Dr. Slater provides several examples where he says the report was internally inconsistent, mixed up witnesses, misstated facts, and wrongly attributed others’ behavior to Dr. Slater. Dr. Slater alleges the University told him about the results of the investigation but the University never provided a copy of the report and or an opportunity to respond directly to the report.
Dr. Slater alleges the University’s disclosure and distribution of the report seriously and irreparably damaged his career and his reputation. He cites his advancement prospects in his chosen field are greatly reduced and that other academics and institutions have tried to distance themselves from him and his wife. According to exhibits submitted with the Complaint, Dr. Slater estimates his damages exceed $3.5 million.
A law that would have required the University of Arizona to disclose the findings in Dr. Slater’s administrative investigation likely would not have prevented the lawsuit Dr. Slater filed. At least three of Dr. Slater’s claims challenge the accuracy of the information the University compiled in its report. If the University knowingly or recklessly publicized false or misleading information about Dr. Slater, even under a mandatory disclosure rule, it could still be liable for some of the claims he now brings against it.
Nor would the law have avoided the “pass the harasser” problem Speier and others seek to prevent. In a January 2016 interview, Dr. Slater stated he voluntarily disclosed information about the allegations against him to prospective employers when he was looking to leave the University of Arizona. The university that hired him, the University of Wyoming, confirmed it had learned of Dr. Slater’s situation during the hiring process.
The consequences to Dr. Slater since the University’s report became public arguably have been both serious and highly visible. With or without a mandatory disclosure law, Dr. Slater’s case demonstrates that there are many interests to consider in determining how best to prevent and address harassment in academia. It also shows there can be many grave consequences when law and policy fail to strike the right balance.
By Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, HopkinsWay PLLC. | © HopkinsWay PLLC 2016. All rights reserved.