by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Sex. In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact."... ...Marlene Dietrich.
Commentary of the Day - March 30, 2008: To Close or Not to Close -- The Office Door. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
For most of my teaching career I simply didn't think about it: my office was wide open (I thought of that as "inviting") when I was alone and closed when a student slipped inside. Granted, those were the days when my college was all male and when nobody, absolutely, nobody, thought that trouble might be brewing or a lawsuit just might be hatching -- that is, if the student came up with a whopper about being sexually molested.
No doubt there were professors, then as now, who took advantage of students in their offices but none of this registered on my radar. I simply believed that a closed door -- privacy, if you will -- is best when the subject of the office visit might get around to a paper that did not pass muster. For many students, a C- (much less a D or F) is upsetting, and I did not want to make the problem worse by having their hysterics waft into the hallway.
I suppose it was the mid-l990s, when the cultural air was punctuated by talk of sexual harassment and of sexual harassment lawsuits, that I first encountered people (one of them was my wife) who urged an "open office door" policy. Why so? Because an open office door removes temptation -- not mine, I hasten to add, but the temptation of that off-the-chart student who, in a pique of anger about that D paper, accuses me of sexual harassment.
The result is a classic she said-he denied case -- and, for me, a bucket of trouble, even if the case never gets to a campus smack-down or a civil court. As one person (not my wife) told me: "It's like proving a negative, back in the old bad days when certain folks tried to deny that they were Communists."
Academe took sexual harassment seriously, sometimes too seriously. In the heyday of campus feminism, even a "ladies room" sign was an occasion for outrage, and anything that bordered on locker room humor was consigned to the trash heap, along with the people insensitive enough to traffic in such off-color jokes. White males, widely known as patriarchal oppressors, kept their heads low and their office doors open.
As I remember it, the college solicitor was asked to inform the faculty about changes in sexual harassment law and to give us tips about how to avoid accidents waiting to happen. One of them was a closed office door.
At this point I might as well come clean: I continued to close my office door whenever a student came in for a conference -- not just the student who wondered if I might look at a new poem she had just written but also the student whose term paper needed an extension. And I confess that there were afternoons in the late twentieth century when I felt like a rebel, even a cultural hero of sorts. Why? Because the admittedly small act of a closed office door eloquently testified to my willingness to buck the crowd (and the times). It also made it clear, at least to me, that students could share as much as they wanted to, or were comfortable with, without feeling that every passerby was part of the action. In my office hours, students talked to me, and I talked to them, office door closed.
Maybe I was just dumb and lucky (that's what my wife says), but I was never accused of sexual harassment, although I was not generally thought of as a "male feminist." In fact, some female faculty members were more than suspicious when, in the early, altogether giddy days of campus feminism, I pointed out what I thought were the movement's excesses and what I thought were the movement’s flaws. Interestingly enough, many of my concerns would be shared a decade later by second and third-stage feminists who grew weary of their shrill, man-hating "sisters."
My hunch is that I would have kept my office door open if any of the hard-line feminists wanted a sit-down during my office hours. Or better yet, I would have told them, as politely as possible, that office hours are for students and that when they come in, I would ask them to please shut the office door.
© 2008, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.
The Irascible Professor comments: Sanford probably should have heeded his wife's advice. Here at Krispy Kreme U. we now have both a sexual harassment policy and an amorous relations policy. The former contains the standard prohibitions against unwanted advances by the "powerful" against the "powerless", while the latter policy goes even further to ban consensual amorous or sexual relationships between "faculty or staff and a member of the University community for whom they have teaching, evaluative, advocacy, counseling, advising or supervisory responsibilities." This policy can have some rather remarkable consequences. For example, a student who happens to be married to a faculty member can never take a class from that person even if he or she is the only person who teaches a course required for the student's graduation. Somewhat surprisingly there is no similar policy that prohibits other close relatives of a faculty member from taking courses from that person.
We also strictly adhere to the "open door" policy. So much so that when the State Fire Marshal reminded the campus that it was illegal to leave office doors open in our classroom buildings unless they automatically shut when the fire alarm sounds, a small fortune was spent equipping our hallways and office doors with magnetic devices to ensure that we could keep our office doors open and still meet the fire code requirement.