• Sexual Assault and Misconduct
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Training Faculty on Sexual Misconduct

Hillary Pettegrew, Esq.
March 2023
blurry view of training session
A UE claims study shows the need to review and assess your approach, including training protocols, to addressing student complaints of sexual misconduct against faculty.

Colleges and universities should periodically evaluate the way they handle student complaints of sexual misconduct against employees — including internal allegations as well as those made in a lawsuit or to an agency such as the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) or a state discrimination agency — to determine whether employee training, especially training of faculty, is sufficient.

United Educators (UE) makes this recommendation because faculty (permanent and adjunct) comprise nearly 60% of the alleged perpetrators in our recent claims review, Lessons From Claims: Higher Ed Employee-on-Student Sexual Harassment and Assault — and 29% of accused faculty perpetrators were also alleged serial perpetrators. If training revisions are necessary, consider these tips.

Faculty Training Suggestions

Many colleges and universities find training faculty on prevention of sexual misconduct toward students to be much more difficult than educating other employees, but UE’s claims experience underlines why this training is critical. Actions that can help a school reach faculty include:

  • Obtain administrative support. Faculty are much less likely to ignore invitations to sessions on sexual harassment prevention if your Chancellor, President, or Provost explicitly backs the effort. Have an appropriate official send faculty the invitations directly by email or letter conveying their strong support — and if the sessions are mandatory, making that clear.
  • Explicitly require adjunct participation. If your institution doesn’t currently mandate sexual harassment prevention training for adjunct faculty, strongly consider a change. Adjunct faculty sometimes have even more need for training, especially if they are new to teaching or come from industries with different behavioral norms and expectations than higher education. The training format for adjuncts doesn’t have to be the same as the format for your other faculty; depending on campus and individual needs, adjuncts might participate in workshops remotely or take an online course. But it’s important to be clear from the outset (such as during interviews) and to confirm in adjunct contracts that you require them to complete the training. Then follow through.
  • Adopt an appealing format. An in-person group discussion format using hypothetical case studies can be a particularly effective approach with faculty; it allows them to explore nuances and debate whether the scenarios constitute prohibited harassment under applicable law and/or your institution’s policy.
  • Avoid the word “training.” Many faculty members dislike the term “training” and believe it doesn’t apply to them. Use language that may resonate more with your faculty, such as “workshop,” “seminar,” “forum,” “roundtable,” or “symposium.”
  • Choose appropriate session leaders. Human Resources may do an excellent job training most employees, but they often aren’t the most effective option for educating faculty. Instead, consider having a Provost, Dean, or respected department chair lead faculty training sessions. Also consider asking in-house counsel or an outside attorney who knows your institution well to participate because faculty are likely to have questions they’re best equipped to answer — such as how the right to academic freedom intersects with your sexual harassment policy.
  • Review your policy on consensual relationships. Periodically — ideally, annually — refresh all current faculty on your policy governing consensual relationships between faculty and students. Cover nuances such as whether all relationships are prohibited versus only relationships with undergraduates or students currently enrolled in a faculty member’s class. If your institution permits such relationships, remind faculty of your requirements for reporting them. Also be sure to emphasize the potential consequences of policy violations.
  • Discuss academic freedom. Reinforce that your institution values and will protect the academic freedom of faculty members. Give examples of specific classroom scenarios that would — and wouldn’t — justify a defense of academic freedom to a student sexual harassment complaint.
  • Incorporate “real-life” examples. Many faculty, who are convinced they would never sexually harass a student or be accused of doing so, likely consider the training an academic exercise and perhaps a waste of their time. Including actual situations may help bring the risk home to them. Consider adapting UE claims examples or exchanging scenarios (based on your own claims experience) with a peer institution.
  • Include illustrations of appropriate and inappropriate topics or language when communicating with students. Although faculty sometimes become friendly with their students, remind them during training that they should maintain professional distance, especially with students currently enrolled in their classes. Even if students first raise subjects such as their own or a faculty member’s dating life, strongly recommend the faculty member decline to discuss it. Give specific examples of “jokes” about sexual and intimate matters that aren’t appropriate.
  • Stress the potential for personal liability. Regardless of any institutional liability, emphasize people who commit sexual harassment always can be personally liable for their actions. Make clear your institution also may refuse to pay for an attorney or indemnify them. Example: A Pennsylvania jury held a professor at West Chester University personally liable for sexually harassing a female student and ordered him to pay $120,000 in damages.

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