Students protest the way Tel Aviv University addresses sexual harassment complaints.
A student demonstration at Tel Aviv University against handling of sexual harassment complaints. Photo by Alon Ron
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Some 40 Tel Aviv University students demonstrated last week outside the rector's office with signs reading, "Stop harassment on campus" and "Protect the women, not the harassers." After a short time, the rector, Prof. Aron Shai, invited them into his office and for the next hour denied their claims that the university is whitewashing students' complaints of sexual harassment by the academic staff. In an interview with Haaretz, Shai made it clear that the university views sexual harassment as a very serious matter and even praised the current ombudsman for such complaints, education Prof. Rachel Erhard, who Shai said is being assisted by an outside law firm.

Nonetheless, the complaints by several male and female students against university lecturers submitted over the past decade to the ombudsman and that reached Haaretz raise questions over whether these cases are indeed being handled properly.

One complaint that caused an uproar at the university over the past few months, and that also prompted last week's protest, was published about a week and a half ago on the Facebook page of M., a female student who attended the protest and was among those who met with the rector.

"My lecturer started making increasingly more fatherly gestures to me, including hugs and odd caresses," she wrote, "In those situations I clearly expressed the discomfort I experienced, but he started sending me text messages from time to time (without any response from me ). When the day of the test arrived, I bumped into him at the train station next to the university. I greeted him and we boarded the bus together. He started asking me more and more questions about my personal life and wanted to know if I had boyfriend while he remained right next to my seat on the short ride. When I explained to him that I'm married, he stopped and became confused and seemed angry for no obvious reason. I didn't react." M. added that the lecturer invited her to breakfast and promised to raise her grade for the course. "When I declined, he patted my hand and pulled me toward the university," she wrote.

M. took the test and got a low mark. She stopped coming to classes for the course and last April submitted a complaint against the lecturer to the ombudsman, Prof. Erh ard. Two weeks ago she learned that Erhard decided to close her complaint.

"In the circumstances presented to me, I did not find that the lecturer's behavior amounted to sexual harassment based on the stipulations of the law and university regulations," Erhard wrote to M., noting that she may view the summary report and the recommendations but did not inform her of her right to appeal the decision. Only after M. publicized her complaint on Facebook did she learn from other students that she can appeal. She scheduled a meeting to review the ombudsman's decision and the summary report, but before it took place, the university notified her of the meeting's postponement because M. was bringing a lawyer. "We must prepare accordingly," she was told and then offered the option of reviewing the report provided that she sign a letter of confidentiality, but she refused.

Prof. Shai, the rector, described M.'s story as "an isolated incident which is disputed," stressing that the ombudsman can suggest holding a disciplinary hearing, but if her decision is not acceptable to the complainants, they have the right to appeal. "The ombudsman's response is not unequivocal," he added, "it is a recommendation that may or may not be accepted. It is a must to inform complainants of the right to appeal. For a few days M. has had a lawyer who is in contact with our legal advisers, so she certainly informed her that she has the right to appeal."

In response to Haaretz's inquiry, the lecturer said: "I don't know what you're talking about. There's one dummy who failed some test and tried to get a certain grade without passing, and apparently she's getting back."

Student complained, lecturer continued

The lecturer whom M. filed the complaint against was the focus of two other complaints filed by female students that described a similar pattern: an invitation to breakfast in exchange for the promise of a higher grade. In 2005, A., then a student at Tel Aviv University and now a doctoral student at Harvard, filed a complaint against him. A.'s case was heard in the university's disciplinary court and she even testified there. At the end of the proceedings, which lasted around five years, the lecturer was found to have behaved inappropriately. After M.'s complaint appeared on Facebook, A. wrote to Erhard that it was her responsibility to ensure that the lecturer does not repeat his acts. Shai said in response to the decision that "there is a ruling which stated the lecturer did not cross the line of sexual harassment, and nevertheless he was given a punishment. There is also the matter of 'cheapening sexual harassment.' After all, it isn't possible to refer to every injustice done to you as sexual harassment, right?" S., who went to Tel Aviv University about ten years ago, also filed a complaint against the same lecturer for similar acts of harassment, including flirting, a breakfast invitation and a promise to raise her mark. A student who studied with her said that she was treated similarly by the lecturer, and also got phone calls from him in which he asked her to meet him. In 2002, the two students decided to file an anonymous complaint with the university ombudsman because they knew the lecturer took it out on people who refused him by lowering their grades. They received a response much like the one M. recently got, but were told that no action could be taken against the lecturer because their complaint was anonymous.

Retires after complaints

Male students who filed complaints of sexual harassment by lecturers also say their complaints were not treated properly. U. complained some three years ago about a lecturer who used to ask him during a class about his sex life. "You know what a woman's sexual cravings are. Would you touch her, would you sleep with her?" he asked the student. The student submitted a complaint to the previous ombudsman, Prof. Thalma Lobel, who suggested he accept an apology from the lecturer. In the end, the lecturer retired and was not tried for the incident. "The professor retired and I spoke with the dean of the faculty and was told that as a pensioner, he no longer teaches," the complainant wrote. "I explained to him the severity of the matter and we agreed that because he had retired, the dean would ensure he wouldn't teach other courses. I hope that this move will ensure that you and the other students are not exposed to him at all and that you will not be harassed by him." U. filed a complaint with the police against the lecturer, but was told that the man was being dealt with by the university and therefore there was no need to question him. The student said he suffers from memories of the incident to this day.

In another case, a student went to his department head and complained of harassment by the latter's teaching assistant, but the student said the department head told him that "you are both big enough to manage on your own," and did not forward the complaint to the ombudsman.

No data on complaints

Other problems relating to the ombudsman's handling of complaints concerns the ombudsman's role as a member of the university staff who must occasionally review complaints against colleagues. "Today at the university no one is required to give an accounting," said Noa Ehrental, a student who was involved with the campus hotline for victims of sexual harassment. "The lecturers look out for each other, don't involve the police and certainly don't impose sanctions on other lecturers."

Shai in turn rejected the students' claims that the university closes cases without warrant. "The university acts determinedly to deal with the matter of sexual harassment, both through the efforts of the ombudsman and also using the inappropriate behavior track," he said. "Whoever feels they have been harassed is invited to contact the ombudsman for further handling. If he did not receive a response within seven days, he is invited to contact the rector's office."

This phenomenon is not limited to Tel Aviv University, but is present in all the academic institutions, say representatives of the National Student Union. Higher education institutions do not release data on the scale of sexual harassment complaints. Apart from that, there is no body that coordinates and oversees complaints. In May 2011, the student union presented a position paper on the handling and prevention of sexual harassment that warned of the apparent trend of silencing sexual harassment complaints. "The academic institutions do not publicize how many complaints turned out to be correct and what punishment the offenders received," the paper states. "It is unclear how a complaint is handled and even if it is clear to the person in charge, at most of the academic institutions, this information is not accessible to students."

Moreover, students are waiting for the state comptroller's report on the higher education institutions' handling of sexual harassment, which is due to be published by the end of this year. The institutions reviewed are state- supported. Students claim the report was supposed to have been released last May but is being delayed. The state comptroller's office stated "there is no delay in the release of the report. During the course of the work, the review was broadened beyond what was originally planned, and the report will also address specific sexual harassment incidents."