Last Monday, Naomi Wolf ’84 accused her former adviser, professor Harold Bloom, of sexually harassing her during the fall of her senior year at Yale. In her extensive article for New York Magazine, Wolf documents the incident itself, but also her efforts, 20 years later, to meet with Yale officials about its sexual harassment policies. Wolf paints a picture of a system that, if not ineffectual, was at least unwilling to meet with an important alumna with important concerns.
In the aftermath of Wolf’s accusations, there has been a veritable media frenzy as reporters hone in on alleged sexual harassment of a now-famous student by a still-famous professor. Such attention on the harassment itself, however, detracts from the larger issues of the institutional treatment of sexual harassment issues and the adequacy of Yale’s policies. Still, it is hard for us, the current students of Yale, to find much of an advocate in Wolf, who is agitating for change in current policy based on the policies she encountered 20 years ago.
The incident itself, which Wolf says occurred when Bloom came to her apartment for dinner and ended up putting his hand on her inner thigh, is not the focus of Wolf’s piece. Although she says it left her emotionally scarred, Wolf instead focuses on the Yale’s grievance policies, arguing that the system that existed in 1983 kept her from coming forward. Wolf chronicles the recent struggle she said she encountered when trying to meet with Yale officials to ensure the policies had since changed.
Since her article, few have been shy about passing judgment on Wolf. Some have saluted her for coming forward. Others have criticized her strongly. Some deny that what happened to her constitutes sexual harassment. Others blame her for not coming forward earlier. And some feminists even have blasted Wolf for turning herself into a helpless victim who remained to afraid to act for 20 years.
Others have chosen to focus on Bloom. Last week three Yale seniors e-mailed former students of Bloom asking them to report incidents of harassment. Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky was not far off when she described such an e-mail as a “witch hunt.” If more students come forward, we applaud their courage. But for some to take charge of ferreting out possible further transgressions is entirely inappropriate.
We encourage students who do have concerns to take them to the University. Rather than getting caught up in sordid tales of scandal or “he said, she said” stories we should do what Wolf herself urges: take a closer look at the system itself. No doubt, some experience poor outcomes under the current procedures, others may still feel intimidated to come forward, and there may indeed be flaws in the system. But an alumna — however illustrious — not getting a quick response does not mean current students would have the same problem. Wolf’s getting the runaround from the administration does not equal institutional apathy or inadequate policies.
We find it difficult to believe that Wolf could so harshly indict policies she admittedly learned little about. In fact, we find the sexual harassment and grievance policies to be quite detailed and accessible. All students are mailed a copy when they matriculate, they receive a new copy every year, and the policies are also posted, in full, online.
We don’t know what discussions that took place when designing the University’s current policies, but we hope the University is willing to meet with students who have concerns. Our experience with the grievance procedures and with Yale officials gives us no reason to suspect otherwise. In any case, we wish students and the media alike would focus on the real issues behind Wolf’s accusations. If the system is broken, vilifying the accusers or the accused is certainly not going to fix it.