A Report to Members about AHA Action on Sexual Harassment
In fall 2017, as allegations of sexual harassment flooded into public view from women (and some men) employed in movies, television, journalism, and politics, behavior in academe and the historical profession at large almost inevitably became part of the conversation. Stories of the harassment of graduate students by their mentors and of junior faculty by more senior colleagues surfaced on and off social media. Many women who work as historians in a variety of settings, including myself, have similar tales to tell. In the past, such incidents have been treated in isolation and as individual experiences. The AHA has long been on record as decrying sexual harassment in employment, but that statement clearly needs expanding and updating.
The AHA Committee on Gender Equity (CGE, formerly the Committee on Women Historians) and the AHA Professional Division began the Association’s discussions during their regular fall teleconferences in October. The topic was also on the agenda for the November meeting of American Council of Learned Societies executive directors, attended by the AHA’s Jim Grossman.
Shortly thereafter, on November 14, a large number of historians and others submitted a comprehensive Letter to the American Historical Association Concerning Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Profession. (About 45 percent of the eventual 868 signers were AHA members.) The letter asked historians “to take stock of our own professional culture, and the ways in which it may contribute to environments in which sexual harassment and assault are tolerated.” It pointed out that in addition to the harm such behavior has caused victims, the discipline as a whole has suffered when talented individuals have abandoned history for other fields of study. It lamented that scholars and colleagues have often counseled victims to keep silent in response to harassment, largely because of potential long-term negative effects on a victim’s career. And it noted that harassment incidents could occur in settings other than particular workplaces, including at AHA annual meetings and similar professional gatherings involving people from different institutions.
In this context, the Professional Division, led by its vice president, Kevin Boyle, continued discussions by e-mail about how best to address the problem of sexual harassment as it relates to the work of historians. Grossman reported on how other professional associations—among others, the American Philosophical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature—have handled these issues and on what they have learned about relevant legal aspects. After consultations with Grossman, AHA president Tyler Stovall, CGE chair Katrin Schultheiss, and myself, Boyle drafted a memo for the Council, summarizing other associations’ sexual harassment policies and sketching options the AHA might take, but not committing the Association to any specific course of action.
The AHA has long decried sexual harassment in employment, but that statement clearly needs expanding and updating.
We collectively decided on the following strategy. Sexual harassment was already on the AHA Council’s agenda for Thursday, January 4. To enable the Council to benefit from members’ experience and wisdom, we decided to make sexual harassment the subject of a late-breaking session for Saturday, January 6, chaired by me as president-elect. We also scheduled another discussion for the Council’s meeting on Sunday, January 7, with the goal of setting forth guidelines for an ad hoc committee that could draft a new AHA statement to be presented to the Council (with comments from committees representing the AHA’s various constituencies) at its next meeting, in June.
The initial Council discussions on January 4 were wide-ranging. Councillors concurred that the AHA should adopt a new statement on sexual harassment. Our general counsel advised us that the AHA should focus specifically on the spaces it controls—that is, its own office, the annual meeting, and any other committee meetings or conferences sponsored by the Association. Just prior to the meeting, we learned that the American Political Science Association (APSA) had recently conducted a survey of its members about experiences of harassment at its conventions for the past five years, and we were given advance copies of its analysis of the findings. The Council quickly agreed to submit essentially the same survey to the AHA membership, with the goal of obtaining comparative data. We decided to wait to make other decisions until after the late-breaking session.
On Saturday, January 6, between 100 and 120 people, primarily women but perhaps 10 percent men, attended the late-breaking session. Panelists—Stovall, Schultheiss, Marcy Norton (the spokesperson for the group that composed the letter), and Catherine Clinton (who as president of the Southern Historical Association had focused on sexual harassment in that organization)—each made brief presentations. Then I opened the floor for comments. Many audience members spoke, some movingly recounting episodes of sexual harassment or even assault they had experienced either at conventions or in other professional settings. They offered many thoughtful suggestions about policies the AHA could adopt, calling for statements of what we might term “best practices” to guide historians and their employers. That request for guidance was repeated by department chairs at a meeting Jim Grossman and I attended immediately after the session.
It therefore became clear that, rather than one statement, the AHA needed to adopt several: one on sexual harassment, setting forth principles and complaint procedures for our conventions and other meetings we organized, and others on such topics as hiring and mentoring, outlining principles and best practices in contexts over which we have no direct control.
Accordingly, at the meeting on Sunday, January 7, the Council made a series of decisions. It delegated two tasks to small groups of councillors: making final decisions about the details involved before distributing the APSA survey and reviewing the language in the staff handbook concerning sexual harassment to ensure it was adequate and up-to-date. Councillors—some of whom had attended the session the previous day—concurred that the AHA should issue new or expanded statements summarizing the practices required to create safe environments for historians and their work. The specifics of such statements remain to be developed but will rest on commonly accepted ethical norms.
Significantly, councillors agreed on the basic outlines of a new procedure, which will implement a restated and expanded set of principles and definitions of prohibited behavior at annual meetings and other AHA events. All registrants for AHA-sponsored meetings should be required to indicate that they are aware of these policies as a part of the registration process. Drawing on processes adopted by other professional associations but duplicating none of them exactly, we decided to name an ombuds team consisting of designated members of the Council and representatives from the AHA’s relevant constituencies to receive complaints about harassment at our meetings. Team members’ names and contact information will be publicized, and complainants may choose which individual to contact. That team member would acquaint the complainant with her or his options. If the complaint involves a possible crime, the team member could recommend that the individual report the event to appropriate authorities. In the event the complainant wished to pursue the matter further within the AHA, the ombuds team member would, after further inquiry into the circumstances, turn the information over to the executive director, who would consult the AHA president and general counsel before proceeding. Expulsion from the meeting is a possible sanction for an offender.
The statements and the new procedure will be drafted by a Council committee headed by Teaching Division vice president Elizabeth Lehfeldt and including among its members Tyler Stovall and Kevin Boyle, along with a representative of CGE. We anticipate approval by the Council in June and full implementation at the 2019 AHA annual meeting in Chicago.
Mary Beth Norton is president of the AHA.
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