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Suicide And Sexual Harassment

A most disturbing article in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education deals with the suicide of two professors at the University of Iowa, both of whom faced charges of sexual harassment.

Arthur H. Miller, a prominent political scientist, was accused of offering female students good grades in return for fondling their breasts. Mark O. Weiger, a well-known oboist, evidently (like Mozart) possessed a taste for the scatological. Miller shot himself in a public park. Weiger locked himself inside his car in his garage and asphyxiated himself.

No one knows for sure whether these men were guilty as charged. If they were not, then their deaths are scandalous, a result of accusations run wild. But even if they did do what they have been alleged to have done, the taint of scandal remains.

Any offer of better grades in return for sexual favors is offensive and demeaning, and cannot be permitted to go acknowledged or unpunished. In Miller's case, any such behavior, if indeed he engaged in it, would have put an entire career at risk. A 66-year-old man simply would not do such things unless something had gone seriously wrong with his mental condition. Yet no one in a position of authority at the University of Iowa seemed to take into account the likelihood that Miller needed professional help. Administrators went out of their way not to appear sympathetic to him. Campus police arrested and charged him. His name and pictured were plastered all over the news. He was prevented from teaching his classes. University President Sally Mason all but announced his guilt in a public statement. His suicide note said he took his own life because of "the disappointment and the embarrassment" the charges against him had caused his family.

Weiger, the oboe professor, had been charged by a graduate student named Melissa Milligan he had helped bring to the university. An investigation conducted by the university supported her complaint, and it is not hard to conclude that Weiger had indeed conducted himself in an unprofessional manner that students could find hurtful and demeaning. But Milligan was not satisfied with the investigation that upheld her complaint; she pursued the matter with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and then filed a federal lawsuit against both him and the university. With all the resulting publicity, Weiger was convinced that he would never again be able to recruit students and he saw his academic career coming to an end. He took his own life, but even this did not stop Milligan, who continued her suit against his estate.

One comes away from this Chronicle article wondering just how senior administrators at the University of Iowa understand their jobs. Of course they are under an obligation to create an atmosphere in which students will not be made the objects of actions that threaten and harass them. But surely they ought to understand as well how explosive charges of sexual harassment can become, especially in the small-town environment of a modern university. Even men who did wrong, assuming these men did do wrong, are human. Neither of them were treated as if they were. The University of Iowa may be a wonderful place to be a student. It sounds like a perfectly dreadful place to be a faculty member.