Prof slapped over harassment training

UC Irvine relieves a faculty member of supervisory duties for refusing to take sexual harassment training

Dec 11, 2008
Bob Grant
A University of California, Irvine, biologist has been relieved of his supervisory duties for refusing to submit to sexual harassment training mandated by California state law.UC Irvine has also contacted the scientist's funding agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, to say that he is no longer supervising his grants because he refused the training -- a step that has him concerned he may lose his funding altogether.linkurl:Alexander McPherson,; who has studied protein crystallization technology at the school for 11 years, told __The Scientist__ that he continues to decline partaking of the training on grounds that it impinges upon his individual dignity. "What I'm arguing against is that the state thinks it has the right to impose upon its citizens what is essentially behavioral training," he said.The training, which is mandated by 2005's linkurl:AB 1825; and is required of all supervisors in California working for organizations that regularly employ 50 or more employees or regularly, involves two hours of classroom or online instruction on federal and statutory sexual harassment laws and guidelines. The law is meant to protect California institutions from harassment lawsuits. According to the linkurl:US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,; thousands of harassment lawsuits are brought to court every year, with some jury awards reaching $500,000.Due to McPherson's refusal to take the training, UC Irvine, on November 1, prohibited him from supervising two research scientists in his lab, though he said his research has continued uninterrupted, and he continues to teach an advanced biochemistry course. The university has informed him, however, that he'll have to teach the course without the use of TAs starting in January.McPherson also said that UC Irvine's vice chancellor for research, linkurl:Susan Bryant,; sent letters at the end of November to NIH and to the linkurl:Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute,; saying that McPherson was no longer a supervisor on grants from the institutes.The letter to officials at the Buffalo, New York-based Hauptman-Woodward Institute, which was obtained by __The Scientist__, read, in part, that McPherson was "no longer available to supervise personnel on this award because he has refused to take the mandatory sexual harassment prevention training required of all supervisory employees by California Law (AB1825) and by University of California policy." Individuals are required to take the training every two years.Paula Flicker, the NIH program manager who oversees the $1.2 million, four year grant that McPherson began receiving this month, confirmed that the NIH had received a letter from UC Irvine informing the agency of McPherson's non-supervisory status. Flicker told __The Scientist__ that UC Irvine -- with McPherson as PI -- was awarded the grant in September, but that no further determination regarding the letter has yet been made.But the fact that UC Irvine's research office is contacting his funders about his noncompliance to the state's sexual harassment training has McPherson worried. "To suddenly have [my funding] taken away by this arbitrary action?" he said. "You're damn right I'm concerned about it."McPherson said that after refusing to take the training about four years ago and generating friction between himself and university administrators, he suggested that he would submit to it if the university would provide him the following official statement:"The University of California, Irvine acknowledges that the sexual harassment training required of Professor McPherson by the State of California is a requirement for his continued employment at the University, and a condition he will fulfill only under protest. Fulfilling this requirement in no way implies, suggests, or indicates that the University currently has any reason to believe that Professor McPherson has ever sexually harassed any student, or any person under his supervision during his 30 year career with the University of California."McPherson said that the university refused his request to provide the statement though he asked three times. "They refused to even consider this," he said.Though linkurl:Susan Menning,; assistant vice chancellor of communications at UC Irvine, declined to comment specifically on McPherson's case as it was a "personnel matter," she did speak in generalities about the school's sexual harassment training program."I know UC Irvine has taken [the training] very seriously, and we expect people to comply," she told __The Scientist__. "This is a state institution, and there are many policies and procedures required of faculty and staff," for example, training involving the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act for people working in the health care field. Since the law was enacted in 2005, explained Menning, there have been two cycles of the biannual training on the UC Irvine campus. "There's only one individual on campus who has not participated in either cycle," she said.Although Menning said she didn't know what further actions -- beyond relieving them of their supervisory duties -- might be taken against someone who continues to refuse the sexual harassment training, a document released in October yields some clues.That document -- a linkurl:letter; from linkurl:Robert Grey,; UC's interim provost and executive vice president of academic affairs, to linkurl:Mary Croughan,; chair of UC's academic council -- outlines "possible administrative actions that might be taken to assure full compliance by faculty in the new cycle of sexual harassment training." These include:"--Removal of supervisory responsibilities over TAs, RAs and Postdocs (already in place at the Irvine campus). --Delaying implementation of merit increases or promotions, without changing the effective date (i.e., once training is received the merit increase or promotion would be retroactive). --Reporting the names of non-compliant faculty to Chancellors, EVCs, Deans and Regents. --Freezing budgets of departments with non-compliant faculty. --Denying internet access."Though McPherson does not currently support any graduate students or postdocs in his lab, he said he worries that his refusal to take the sexual harassment training may negatively impact his two senior scientists, who rely on NIH grant funding for their salaries. McPherson maintains that his refusal has little to do with sexual harassment and much to do with individual dignity. He added that he would respond in the same manner if he were asked to sign an oath of loyalty to his university or to take a course in "islamophobia.""The point is it's an inanity, and they're trying to kill my grant because I won't participate in that inane process," he said. "Does that make sense? Not to me."McPherson said that he has received both messages of support and negative comments since his case has become public. Out of 200 emails he has gotten regarding his situation, McPherson said that 197 have been supportive. He has posted the text of some of those messages on his lab linkurl:website.; Asked why he doesn't just submit to the training and end the difficulties he's experiencing, McPherson said: "See, that's what they want you to do. They want you to wear yourself out over this. That's what they're counting on, and damn it I won't do it."McPherson added that he has heard from colleagues that other California universities haven't pursued noncompliance to the sexual harassment training as aggressively.McPherson said that he recently sent a letter to UC Irvine's executive vice chancellor and provost linkurl:Michael Gottfredson; to ask is he was aware of the actions the research office had taken against him. He said that Gottfredson wrote back saying that indeed he was fully aware of McPherson's situation."If this is accepted as a precedent, everyone in the state of California would have to take sexual harassment training or have their NIH grants pulled," McPherson said. "This should strike fear in every scientist out there. They don't realize what they're doing here."
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[15 December 2003]