The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 11, 1998
May 11, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 34


New Director To Oversee Sexual Harassment Prevention

Christine Walters sees her role as one of educator and mediator

Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Upon finishing a tall stack of exam papers, a professor clicks off his light and strolls out into the department's reception area. He notices the department's new administrative assistant packing up her things.

"Taking off Ms. Johnson?" he asks.

"Yes, Professor. Time to go do some food shopping," she says, fumbling with her coat.

"Let me get that for you," he interjects, as he helps her put on her coat. Being at such close quarters, he compliments her "lovely perfume."

Several days later the professor heads into his office, but as he passes Johnson he remarks about her "beautiful dress" and how "flattering it is."

That same night, as he is leaving, he notices the assistant still sitting at her desk.

"Working late too?" he asks her.

"Oh, hi. Yes. I'm just trying catch up on some paperwork. But I probably should be heading home soon. I'm starving," she responds.

"Me too. Actually, I was wondering, my wife's away at a conference this week and I'm not doing anything tonight. Maybe you would like to go have a bite? There's this new restaurant downtown that's getting rave reviews."

Is the above situation sexual harassment? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

If you ask Christine Walters, the first director of the Sexual Harassment Prevention and Resolution Program at Johns Hopkins, this professor's invitation might be construed as such. While everyone is likely to be familiar with the form of harassment that offers professional advancement in return for sexual favors, Walters says more typical harassment cases are less clear-cut.

Christine Walters, the first director of the Sexual Harassment Prevention and Resolution Program, comes to Hopkins with a background in both human resources and the law.

"Most people think of harassment as quid pro quo: If you do me a favor, I'll do you a favor," says Walters. "Everyone knows that is wrong, and that is certainly less common." What is more common, Walters says, is the "hostile work environment situation." Whether it be off-color jokes told in a common area, or a repeated request for a date, a hostile environment is created when someone or something in the workplace makes a co-worker unable to do his or her job properly.

In an effort to define and resolve harassment issues, university officials have put in place in the nine university divisions a network of volunteers who are trained to handle these types of complaints. Although this network has been in place for four years, until Walters was hired in early April, there was no full-time staff member who was solely responsible for coordinating this network and investigating these complaints.

Steven Knapp, provost and vice president for academic affairs, says Walters' position was created in order to provide training and support for the network's complaint handlers. Also, with laws regarding harassment changing rapidly, he says, someone was needed to keep up with and apply the ever-evolving definition of sexual harassment to education in the workplace.

"The problem we felt was that there was nobody to coordinate this network that was scattered over the vast units of the university," Knapp says. "We wanted to add a new level of sophistication to what was already an effective network."

Before joining Hopkins, Walters was the senior manager of human resources for Baltimore-based Sinai Health Systems, where she spent nine years in various human resources positions. Knapp says Walters, who is an attorney, was chosen as the program's director due to her expertise in both human resources and legal matters. A psychology major at Lynchburg College, Walters received a master's in administrative science from Johns Hopkins in 1989 and her law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1995. In her new position, Walters, who has an office in Garland Hall, will report directly to the Provost's Office.

Walters sees her new role as an educator and mediator for the sexual harassment issues that creep into the workplace.

A common example of harassment, she says, is the telling of racy jokes in small departments.

"It's wonderful to have good morale and a pleasant and fun work environment when everybody is accepting of that type of behavior," Walters says. "But when a new employee comes on board and isn't used to these people, or that type of banter, for them this may become a hostile work environment."

Or sometimes harassment is not sexual but rather a form of discrimination.

Walters gives as an example a group of students who feel discriminated against because they believe that a professor is giving preferential treatment to a group of the opposite gender.

And some cases of perceived harassment may be due to a cultural misunderstanding.

"A student or employee may be alarmed by direct eye contact and feel that behavior is sexually aggressive," Walters says.

Her human resources experience, she says, has given her a real understanding of how a culturally diverse workplace like the one at Hopkins can lead to such misunderstandings.

Asked to describe her role, Walters says it's one of "intervention."

When a complaint is received, whether it comes through Walters or a SHPRP member, she says it's her responsibility to conduct a "prompt and proper" investigation. This includes getting the complainant's side of the story, the alleged harasser's side, talking to all witnesses and addressing a "myriad of other issues," such as if other people of the same gender have a similar reaction to the accused's behavior.

"We will see if there is an adequate basis in fact," Walters says. "Then we will try to correct the behavior through education or some other medium."

However, Walters warns that she can't promise confidentiality when it comes to claims of sexual harassment.

"I, and the university, have a legal obligation to address and resolve the issue, and, in doing so, it may be necessary to disclose the complaint," she says. "What I can assure is that details of a complaint will be shared only as far as necessary to resolve the matter."

And although there are individuals at campus ministries, FASAP and student counseling services who do promise confidentiality, Walters says the problem with taking this route is that these individuals can give advice but have no authority to do anything about the perceived problem.

"It's my hope that everyone will have a good level of comfort in coming to me with the complaint," Walters says. "We can't fix a problem if we don't know it exists."

Yet Walters understands that some people are simply afraid to make claims of sexual harassment. Many times the harassment case is a power issue, such as one involving a teacher and a student, or a supervisor and a staff member.

"They fear retaliation. The students might feel they'll get lower grades, or a professor is afraid of not getting tenure, or a staff member feels she'll get disciplined or fired," Walters says.

Walters says that the program is not about advocacy; her responsibility is that both sides of the story are told. And she warns that knowingly false allegations are treated just as seriously.

Knapp says that organizations like Hopkins have a responsibility to provide these types of services to their students, staff and faculty.

"This network was not based on a sense of crisis," Knapp says.

A total of 27 contacts with SHPRP regarding sexual harassment were received for the 1996-97 academic year, only 10 of which led to formal investigations. "Hopkins, like many other institutions, is trying to be proactive to these harassment issues," Knapp says.

In her first few months at Hopkins, Walters has already met with many deans and department heads to offer what she calls "update sessions." These sessions are intended to inform these people of changes in the law and how the Sexual Harassment Prevention and Resolution Program works.

"We're basically just letting people know what we do," Walters says.

And that's one of the more important aspects of her job, Walters says: letting those who feel they are being harassed know there is a university-based resource they can turn to for help.

For questions, complaints and information, faculty, staff and students are encouraged to call Christine Walters at 410-516-4282.