Good Ideas

This bill aims to stop sexual harassment in college science and engineering departments

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Over the past year, it seems there has been no shortage of sexual harassment scandals on college campuses—especially in male-dominated departments like science, technology, engineering and math.

To combat this, today California Congresswoman Jackie Speier plans to introduce the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act. If passed, the bill would require universities to report sexual abuse by professors to every federal agency that has awarded it grants in the last decade. The aim is to make federal agencies aware when they fund institutions and researchers with a problem of abuse—and to discourage them from funding them in the future.

“We know that sexual assault and harassment are an enormous factor in driving women out of STEM, and yet universities continue to cover up the appalling actions of some of their faculty,” Speier, who is also the sponsor for federal revenge porn legislation, said in a statement. “This is disgraceful, and federal agencies deserve to know if the researchers they are funding are abusing their students.”

The bill would require universities and colleges to report substantiated findings of harassment as well as incomplete investigations that have been ongoing for more than six months. It would also compel federal agencies to consider reports of harassment and abuse when making funding decisions. If agencies still chose to fund a researcher with a history of sexual harassment or assault, they will be required to disclose as much in their annual reports.

This year alone, we saw multiple cases come to light of researchers who survived virtually unscathed after allegations of sexual harassment. Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley astronomer, resigned from his job amid a sexual harassment scandal last fall, only to be quietly granted a new title. Likewise, astronomer Tim Slater faced allegations at University of Arizona back in 2004, but remained at Arizona for four years before moving on to a prestigious position at the University of Wyoming. But while for harassers, the consequences of their actions may be minimal, for their targets they are not. A 2014 study of scientific fieldwork culture found that 25% of women surveyed were sexually assaulted, and 71% say they were sexually harassed, primarily by more senior members of their research teams.

Proposed as an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, Speier’s bill has six other Democratic sponsors in the House. It would also require the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment in higher education, as well as make suggestions on how to solve the issue.

Requiring that universities report harassment might not stop it. But at the very least it will ensure that it is no longer hidden from sight. Ideally, that will lead to some kind of accountability.

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