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I was saddened to learn that Boston University is defending a music professor accused of sexually harassing two of his students, as reported by The Boston Globe last week. The lawsuit alleges that the professor made “offensive, vulgar, and sexually charged statements to students,” greeted them with unwanted “hugs and kisses on the cheek,” and “asked both students via text or email to send him photos, and apologized if he made them feel uncomfortable.” According to the Globe, in a meeting with one of the students, the professor drew a parallel with her trumpet playing and sex, stating that “listening to her play made him feel like the two were having intercourse.” The women’s former professor often made inappropriate advances and apologize, but continue to make more advances anyway.
The university is apparently defending the professor against five of the 10 charges filed, and according to the Globe, is defending him against an assault and battery charge on the primary grounds that his “intent was intimacy, it was not to cause harm.” Charges were also filed against the university, which is of course defending itself against those charges.
Obviously, the university needs to defend itself against charges, but it is unusual for a university to defend a professor against sexual harassment charges brought by students. In this case, the university could just as easily be defending the students and their right to an environment free of unwanted sexual advances from male professors. In choosing to defend the professor in this case, I believe the university is sending out a bad message; its interests align more closely with protecting faculty accused of sexual harassment than with protecting students from sexual harassment.
Of course, the university could take a third approach, which is not taking either side and simply defending itself and allowing the students’ complaint against the professor to play out in the legal system. That the university chose to defend the professor is not a move that is consistent with creating an environment in which students can feel comfortable that they are being made safe from sexual harassment in the classroom.
If I were the parent of a prospective BU student, which I am, I would have second thoughts about sending my child to a school that defends an employee accused of sexual harassment and lets the students who were allegedly harassed out to dry. The perception that the university favors alleged perpetrators over alleged victims is not a positive one.
Apparently, the university argues that it chose to defend the professor because the complaints against him and the university are “intertwined.” However, I believe that by doing this, the university is actually opening itself up to greater liability — in the court of public opinion and reputation — than it would be if it simply made the appropriate arguments without actually filing a motion to dismiss half of the charges against the accused employee.
It is important to point out that the absence of intent to cause harm is not an appropriate defense to an assault and battery charge in Massachusetts because the law and court rules do not require that there be an intent to cause harm in an assault and battery conviction. According to the court rules, the defendant “is not required to prove that the defendant specifically intended to cause injury.” If the touching occurred without a valid excuse, was intentional, and was offensive and done without consent, then it may be considered to be assault and battery. To be offensive and without consent, the touching must amount to “an unprivileged and unjustified affront to the alleged victim’s integrity.” Since many students might readily view a kiss from a professor as representing an unwanted affront to their integrity, a professor who kisses a student without consent or excuse risks being accused of assault and battery, even in the absence of malicious intent.
It is also important to note that if it is true that the students were repeatedly treated in a way that made them uncomfortable, expressed this to the professor and he continued the behavior knowing it was causing emotional distress, then the defense that the alleged harasser did not intend emotional distress may fall apart. To prove a complaint of infliction of emotional distress, one needs to demonstrate an intent of the defendant to inflict distress or “that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct.”
My point here is that the charges against the professor are not so unreasonable or overwrought as to provide the university with a compelling interest in protecting him against the students’ complaints.
My hope is that Boston University will create an environment in which students feel protected from sexual harassment in the classroom. I find it difficult to see how such an environment can be created if the university is perceived as protecting the legal rights of alleged perpetrators over the legal rights of alleged victims.
Michael Siegel is a professor in the Violence Prevention Research Unit, Department of Community Health Sciences, School of Public Health, email@example.com