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A Cautionary Tale

January 7, 2019

An excellent New Year's resolution, particularly for people who rant about the inanity of others, is to gather the facts before making a judgment. This happened to me recently when I read an article that was so outrageous I had to question the sanity of those involved.

Here's the story. The University of Missouri determined that a male student had sexually harassed a female student and suspended him from the university for four years, later reduced to two. The basis for the harassment? The man violated the university's policy forbidding unwelcome sexual advances or "requests for sexual activity by a person or persons in a position of power or authority to another person . . ." This is presumably intended to punish professors for saying, in effect, "Sleep with me or I'll flunk you." A worthy policy. So what was the man's "position of power or authority"? He was taller than the woman. That's right. He was just another student. He had no ability to affect her grades or her prospects at the university. His alleged authority was based solely on his height.

Now I'm getting used to stories from academia of idiots whose judgments cause befuddlement or anger in those of us outside the ivory towers, but this is in a league of its own. Can men only ask for dates from women whose eyes are parallel with theirs? If a woman has to look up to a man, does the crook in her neck justify a complaint to some rights panel? Do tall people automatically have authority over those less vertically endowed? Is the university's office of student conduct staffed by short people who resent having to tilt their heads to have a conversation? And is this a candidate for the most outlandish story of the year?

Alas, no. The incidents that led to the complaint were more complex than the simple story reveals. It's bad enough as it is. Bad enough that a court overturned the university's suspension of the man. And bad enough that a handful of administrators engaged in dodging and weaving. One desperate tactic, seized upon in the heat of a courtroom cross-examination, was to propose that the man's height was a factor in the case. In fact, his height had nothing to do with the original decision. It was a panic response by someone out of her depth.

To be sure, the university comes out covered not in glory, but in dung. And its administrators seem to need training in judgment. But the height issue was not the reason for the suspension, it was an after-the-fact rationale concocted in a "cover your ass" scramble.

All of which brings me to the point that when a story is too outrageous to be true, it probably isn't. The good news is that enough of them are to keep ranters busy.