Alexander McPherson, an acclaimed molecular biology and biochemistry professor and researcher at UC Irvine, may be placed on unpaid leave for his refusal to take a sexual harassment prevention training course, which is required of all supervisors of 50 people or more.
McPherson has thus far been stripped of his ability to supervise his laboratory. UCI officials also initially planned to reassign his teaching duties, but have dropped that course of action.
To date, McPherson has generated roughly $20 million in grants at UCI, but has stated that he is willing to leave the university over this dispute. According to McPherson he will not take part in sexual harassment prevention training, as it would be harmful to his character.
“What is damaging is that there is a principle involved here. The principle seems to be that the state has mandated that everyone in a supervisory capacity must take sexual harassment training … I am a tenured professor. I would claim that the state does not have the right to pass laws which I find offensive and unable to comply with,” McPherson said.
Aside from casting doubt on his character, McPherson stated that the course requirement is “politically charged” and not motivated by the actions of any supervisors on campus. He further expressed that by placing importance on this issue, the university is diverting its attention from more important matters.
“I find what appear to be the priorities of the university to be disheartening … They seem to have less concern about many important academic matters than they do about sexual harassment training and I wonder why this is such a tremendously important thing to them,” McPherson said.
According to McPherson, among the greater concerns the course requirement will affect are two National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants that are currently pending. The grants will go toward a graduate student traineeship and research at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, respectively. Although McPherson is not completely responsible for both grants, he is expected to take part in conducting the graduate student traineeship and is the program co-leader of the structural biology portion of the cancer center. Outside of his pending grants, McPherson also recently received a grant of $1.2 million from NIH to study structural biology.
Albert Bennett, the dean of the School of Biological Sciences, who oversees McPherson’s job duties, declined to comment specifically on McPherson’s case, citing that it is a personnel matter. Yet, he wished to clarify two possible misconceptions about the course requirement overall.
“First, this is not a university-originated requirement; it is state law and the university is required to participate. Second, not all individuals at the university are required to take this training, only supervisors,” Bennett said.
Assembly Bill 1825, which initiated the sexual harassment prevention training requirement, was passed by the California state legislature in 2004.
McPherson acknowledged that the university played no part in the development of the bill. However, according to McPherson, the university should have a more active role in how the actions set in motion by the bill are carried out.
“I don’t think anything that has been done at the university had any bearing on the passing of this law. Ultimately, we’re going back to the state legislature, they passed this law. But the university didn’t stand up for itself. The university didn’t defend its faculty. It didn’t defend the people at the university. The university just said, ‘well this is the law, whatever the legislature passes, we’ll do it.’ That’s wrong,” McPherson said.
McPherson described his response to the policy as “an act of civil disobedience” and stated that those at the top-tier of UCI should be held responsible for the policy’s implementation at the university. He further stated that UCI officials, who decline to comment on the situation stating that it is a personnel matter, do so as a way for them to “cop out.”
“This is not a personnel matter. As I see it, this is an academic freedom matter and I think they’re obligated to comment on that, but they’re not,” McPherson said.
Among McPherson’s commitments to UCI is conducting the course “High Resolution Structures: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and X-ray Methods.” Melanie Cocco, an assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, teaches the course alongside McPherson.
According to Cocco, McPherson’s conflict with UCI officials over the sexual harassment prevention training course requirement has had no bearing on the way that their course has been conducted. Cocco also stated that McPherson is an asset to UCI and someone she can rely on.
“Ironically, if I were to experience harassing behavior, Alex McPherson is someone I would trust to confide in,” Cocco said.
Cocco took the required training online and had mixed feelings about the experience.
“There was some useful information with regard to procedures to follow should you see or hear of harassing behavior. However, by the end of the course I was concerned that the primary function was to limit the university’s liability in the case of legal action. I have not seen any data indicating that the online course has had any impact in actually preventing inappropriate behavior,” Cocco said.
According to Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor Kristen Quanbeck of UCI’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, compliance with Assembly Bill 1825 has been overwhelmingly successful at UCI. Although sexual harassment prevention training courses will be offered to supervisors until Nov. 12, most supervisors have already completed the requirement.
“I am happy to report that the vast majority of UCI faculty and staff supervisors, approximately 97 percent, have completed this training for the 2007 year. Only one individual remains non-compliant for both the 2005 and 2007 years,” Quanbeck said.
However, due to confidentiality reasons Quanbeck could not disclose whether this “one individual” was McPherson.
According to Quanbeck the university offers multiple outlets for supervisors to fulfill the course requirement. In turn, this may make it easier for supervisors to accommodate the course into their schedule. Options offered include an online program, instructor-led workshops and several live theater productions.
Still, according to Quanbeck a number of issues are constants throughout these presentations, including a definition of sexual harassment, applicable laws and university policies and procedures, rights and remedies and the issue of intent and liability. Additionally, the workshops address consensual relations, related case studies, the role of the supervisor and resources available.
When asked about UCI’s stance toward Assembly Bill 1825, campus spokesperson Susan Menning said, “It’s a state law and we are committed to obeying state laws and federal laws.”
Two more sexual harassment prevention training courses will be conducted by Nov. 12, which will be the final opportunity for McPherson to comply with Assembly Bill 1825. Although McPherson’s status with UCI is subject to change, UCI’s online schedule of classes currently lists him as the instructor of five courses for the winter 2009 academic quarter.