House panel clarifies how universities would report sexual harassment cases to U.S. funders

The chairwoman and top Republican, respectively, on the House of Representatives science committee, representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX, right) and Frank Lucas (R–OK, left), teamed up on H.R. 36.

E. Petersen/Science

New rules from the National Science Foundation (NSF) on reporting sexual harassment by someone with an NSF grant raise questions about due process, university administrators say. Yesterday, a key congressional panel took those concerns to heart by modifying language in a bill that would require the administration to write guidelines applying to half a dozen major federal research agencies.

The antiharassment legislation (H.R. 36), was approved unanimously by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The vote wasn’t a surprise, given that its lead sponsors are the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the science committee, representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Frank Lucas (R–OK).

“Too many women have been driven out of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers due to a culture of harassment and abuse,” Lucas said in his opening statement. “H.R. 36 takes the first steps to addressing that problem.” Johnson said she hopes the bill would promote “meaningful and lasting culture change” on an issue “that has not been addressed in a comprehensive fashion.”

The bipartisan support represents a landmark step for such legislation. Last year, the Republican-led House ignored a nearly identical version of the bill sponsored only by Democrats, and it died when that Congress adjourned. The Republican-led Senate is likewise expected to bury a similar bill (S. 1067) introduced in April by Senator Kamala Harris (D–CA) and eight Democratic colleagues.

Uniform guidelines

The bill has three components. One would authorize NSF to spend $17.5 million on research to understand the causes and consequences of sexual and gender harassment and how to reduce their prevalence. The bill also directs the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to update its guide to ethical conduct for scientists.

The bill’s most direct attack on sexual harassment may be its mandate that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) first “develop a uniform set of policy guidelines,” then “encourage” agencies to follow them and monitor their progress. Its initial description of what those guidelines should look like tracked NSF’s new policies. And that similarity is what has given university officials heartburn.

NSF’s new rules are designed to give the agency a heads-up after one of its grantees has been accused of sexual harassment. They specify two types of notification by institutions: when a researcher is found guilty of sexual or gender harassment, and when the university takes any steps in response to an allegation of harassment involving a researcher.

Those steps, called administrative action, can be as mild as notifying the scientist that a complaint has been filed or as drastic as banning them from campus. University administrators say the lack of a consistent definition of administrative action means they must at times tell the federal government more than what they feel is appropriate.

Higher education lobbyists offered this scenario to illustrate the problem. “Say a student files a harassment complaint against her adviser, and the university declares a brief cooling-off period while it tries to figure out what’s going on,” the lobbyist explained. “The faculty member is moved to an office on a different floor to make sure that he is not in contact with the person who filed the complaint.”

“A few days later the complaint is dropped. But we’ve already notified NSF,” the lobbyist added, “and there’s no mechanism to update the agency. And under [the original version of H.R. 36], that information is now in the system and their identity would need to be shared with other federal agencies.”

Defining the trigger

Yesterday, the committee tried to correct that ambiguity by amending the legislation. “My amendment makes an important clarification to address concerns expressed by some universities,” Lucas explained in offering the change. “It makes clear that the trigger for that reporting is an administrative action that affects the ability of the grant personnel to carry out the activities of the grant. I believe this is an appropriate trigger and that the new language helps provide clarity to universities about [how to carry out] their new responsibilities.”

The panel voted unanimously to accept the change after Johnson voiced her support. “We think it’s a good compromise,” says one higher education lobbyist. The NSF language [on administrative actions] is so broad, and this narrows it.”

The committee also adopted an amendment requiring that any new federal guidelines on sexual harassment conform to a 1974 law that protects the privacy of student records. The intent is to prevent universities from disclosing the identities of victims and those filing complaints.

A third amendment urges OSTP to address “barriers to reentry into the workforce” in its guidelines. That language speaks to the all-too-common situation in which the victim drops out of science even if their harassment claim is upheld and the perpetrator is punished.

H.R. 36 is expected to have smooth sailing if it gets to the House floor. But whether the Senate will find the time to take up the measure is anybody’s guess.