Harassment-free higher education

Public universities have an obligation to create safe learning environments for all.

by Luis Ruuska

Tyler Clementi committed suicide in 2010 after his Rutgers University roommate streamed a video of his sexual encounter online.

Clementi’s death put cyberbullying in the national spotlight as celebrities, politicians, parents and other college students called for tougher measures against it.

Currently, the best chance of real change is the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, a bill from last year. Sen. Pat Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., reintroduced the bill last month.

The bill’s previous version had 32 cosponsors, including Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. It would require public higher education institutions to expand or modify their harassment policies.

Most notably, the bill requires a revision of the definition of “harassment” to include student speech “through the use of electronic messaging services, commercial mobile services, electronic communications or other technology.”

Though the University of Minnesota’s policies concerning harassment aren’t perfect, they’re quite good and should serve as a model to other colleges and universities.

The Board of Regents adopted a sexual harassment policy in 2012 that defined harassment as conduct that may create “an intimidating, hostile or offensive work or academic environment in any University activity or program.”

In order to combat sexual harassment, the policy compels each University campus to “adopt procedures on each campus for investigating and resolving complaints of sexual harassment” and “address violations of this policy through disciplinary or other corrective action up to and including termination of employment or academic dismissal.”

Housing & Residential Life appears to actively use the Board of Regents policy in addition to their Community Behavioral Standards.

These standards include a clause on hazing, which is any activity that “endangers the mental or physical health or safety of an individual.” This includes acts “intended to cause personal degradation or humiliation.”

Cumulatively, both of these University policies, in conjunction with others, work well to accomplish nearly everything the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act hopes to implement in all public colleges and universities nationwide.

However, where University policies could use modification is in recognizing technological harassment as an equally valid form of harassment.

Though colleges and universities certainly can’t change or control people’s prejudices or limit their right to free speech, they can take appropriate action when this prejudice manifests as harassment through a school’s Internet, computers or other digital technology.

The reality is that students’ digital lives are increasingly intertwining with their real ones. Higher education cannot ignore this phenomenon. Even universities with anti-harassment policies as stringent as the University’s should reflect this change in how they regulate student interaction.