Professor Boycotts Sexual Harassment Training

Under California law, employers with more than 50 workers are legally required to provide sexual harassment prevention training to their supervisory employees.  

An interesting Op-ed piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week by Alexander McPherson, a tenured UCI professor, who is refusing to attend his employer's mandatory sexual harassment training.  He is basically a "conscientious objector" who is boycotting the sessions on moral and political grounds.  As he explains: 

First of all, I believe the training is a disgraceful sham. As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ, primarily designed to relieve the university of liability in the case of lawsuits. I have not been shown any evidence that this training will discourage a harasser or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment.

What's more, the state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repugnant and offensive. I find it offensive not only because of the insinuations it carries and the potential stigma it implies, but also because I am being required to do it for political reasons. The fact is that there is a vocal political/cultural interest group promoting this silliness as part of a politically correct agenda that I don't particularly agree with.

I have to agree with Professor Alexander that there is something vaguely un-American about a state-compelled "re-education" program that aims to teach adults how they are supposed to speak and act.  But even if there were no law on the books it would be a very legitimate goal for any employer to prevent lawsuits and improve morale by preventing harassment.  Also, since everyone is required to take the training I don't quite follow the argument that it communicates some sort of "stigma."

According to the piece, the University has responded to Professor Alexander's boycott by taking away some of his staff and lab resources.  This raises a clear conflict between the professor's political speech rights (which are themselves protected under California law) and the harassment training law. 

This conflict piqued my interest enough to review the actual language of the "mandatory" training statute, California Gov't Code section 12950.1(a).  Interestingly, it doesn't actually require the professor to attend the training.  The statute merely requires that the employer "provide at least two hours of classroom or other interactive training and education regarding sexual harassment."   As illustrated by the recent debate over what it means to "provide" meal and rest breaks to employees, the word arguably requires only that the employer make the training available. 

Thus, the University has discharged its duty to "provide" the training by making it available.  And the professor's refusal to attend doesn't put him or the University in violation of the law.  So maybe everyone can just let it go and get back to their microbiology research.




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