Think Beyond the Pigeonhole When Addressing Harassment on Campus

June 01, 2017

At many colleges and universities, the business officer’s role as risk management administrator competes with other roles that present high-level issues and pressing demands. Since institutions encounter a broad array of risk, business officers often  become adept at triaging issues by creating pigeonholes—identifying the core issue and assigning responsibility to a knowledgeable, resourceful campus colleague who can address the risk in a meaningful way. The pigeonhole approach has these distinct advantages:

  • Brief and focused preliminary risk evaluation
  • Straightforward handoff after identifying a subject matter expert
  • Deeper analysis and targeted response by a knowledgeable expert

With its tight focus, pigeonholing works particularly well in efficiently managing a discrete risk. Yet, not all risks can be effectively addressed in this manner.

When United Educators recently surveyed higher education administrators to understand the risks they found most concerning, nearly 30% of respondents – most of whom were campus business officers – identified Title IX compliance and sexual harassment (including student sexual assault) as their top risk. Ongoing conversations with business officers and other campus leaders reveal that Title IX compliance and harassment prevention efforts raise significant concerns given the broad reach of the risk and the current environment of tight or declining resources.

Campus harassment is rightfully a high-level concern that has broad implications for a college or university. Reputations can be threatened if an institution is unable to foster an inclusive and respectful educational environment, resulting in incidents that can lead to litigation or media headlines. Reputational damage can be widespread, affecting efforts to recruit academic talent, engage staff, or attract the most desirable students. In short, inattention to campus harassment puts the institutional mission at risk.

The pigeonhole approach to managing harassment may be tempting. In fact, that’s how many institutions address it—by assuming that human resources, for example, has it covered. But beware of overlooking the broad range of related issues or delicate nuances in the harassment arena. Harassment takes many forms and negatively impacts the campus environment, meaning that all constituencies – faculty, staff, students – are impacted by the institution’s efforts to manage this risk.

Harassment is highly regulated, so compliance can quickly overwhelm. And, at its core, the risk involves human behavior and attitudes, requiring the educational institution to deliver clear and strong messages about its expectations of the community for promoting a culture of tolerance and respect.

If prevention and response programs are too narrowly tailored, efforts may be viewed as minimal, under-resourced, or even ineffective. Compliance – or those actions required by law or regulation – may become the priority, rather than rising above baseline requirements to tackle behaviors and attitudes affecting overall institutional culture. So take a step back and employ an expansive approach that first considers:

  • How and where does harassment currently affect our community?
  • Which administrators on campus care about or are currently engaged in efforts to prevent or respond better to harassment?
  • What resources has our institution already deployed to address campus harassment?

By assessing current efforts and bringing together stakeholders already engaged with harassment issues, an institution is able to connect and actually concentrate current resources. The goal (and more likely result) of an institution’s coordinated, more expansive effort is to implement a stronger, more cohesive program that tackles harassment by addressing campus-specific problems, prioritizing the most pressing compliance hurdles, and strengthening campus culture through well-integrated policies and practices affecting all campus constituencies.

By Constance Neary, United Educators vice president for risk management