The past year has seen a series of revelations about research faculty sexually harassing students they were supposed to mentor. In two cases, faculty were allowed to keep their jobs, leaving prospective students unaware of potential risks. In the third, the researcher was hired by a string of prestigious universities, a trend that only ended when a University of Chicago investigation found he assaulted an unconscious student.
The one thing these cases have in common is that no one has been informed of the results of investigations, which are generally kept confidential. Even teachers who could have acted to protect students, and students themselves who could have been alerted to and reported any additional problems, were kept in the dark. While the University of Chicago faculty who hired one of the bullies was aware of some past issues, the full extent of the issues is still unclear.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) helped bring awareness to this issue, and she’s now trying to reduce confidentiality to make it a little harder for sexual harassers to continue their careers as mentors. Its efforts rely on an important part of the research machinery: the federal agencies that provide grants to many researchers.
Speier introduces a bill entitling her to the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act. If passed, universities would be required to report the results of an investigation that found evidence of sexual harassment to all federal agencies that provided grants to the faculty in question. Those reports are then considered when the agencies receive further grant applications from that faculty.
Universities and other research institutions that have not yet completed investigations will also have to report ongoing investigations (without naming the faculty under investigation). If a university has an ongoing harassment issue or is simply not completing its investigation, it should be clear.
While the bill does not impose specific sanctions, it instead contains reporting requirements that could have some impact. Agencies funding grants must merge both categories of reports (completed and ongoing investigations) and submit a summary to Congress. That includes information on any instances where an agency knew a faculty member was engaging in sexual harassment, but still gave them a scholarship. Enough examples like this, and it’s reasonable to expect Congress to ask some pointed questions. After all, grant providers should have serious questions about a researcher’s ability to manage students and collaborations if they tend to engage in harassment.
Assuming the funding agencies limit the number of grants they give to people found to have engaged in this behavior, these individuals’ prospects of retaining their current faculty positions or moving on to another institution may be limited. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t do much to protect the students and postdocs who currently have to work with them, but it should be a long-term deterrent.
Another potential deterrent for all involved is the fact that, once collected by federal funding agencies, the information may be subject to freedom of information requests. We have asked Speier’s office if this is the case, but have not received a response as of publication.