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How well does Duke University prevent sexual harassment?

Duke University’s many academic programs are about to assess how they’re doing when it comes to preventing workplace sexual harassment.

The move comes at the direction of President Vince Price, who announced it via an all-campus email that said the institution has to “understand the extent of this problem at Duke,” and ensure there’s “accountability and meaningful change.”

Price said that while Duke has protocols for reporting any harassment, it’s not sufficient to deal with incidents after the fact.

“In isolation, a retroactive approach places too great a burden on those who are subjected to harassment and fails to address the underlying cultural and professional forces that perpetuate this damaging behavior,” he said.

The pending review will involve “every academic unit” at Duke, including those on the medical side of the university, and should prompt the development of follow-up action plans by Sept. 1, he said.

Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Abbas Benmamoun and Duke School of Medicine Vice Dean for Faculty Ann Brown will coordinate the project.

The president’s move comes amid an ongoing national discussion that has seen misconduct alleged against people ranging from Hollywood moguls like Harvey Weinstein to state legislators like N.C. Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake.

The allegations against Hall surfaced Wednesday and prompted bipartisan calls his resignation.

But academia has its own problems, illustrated by an ongoing dispute at the University of Rochester over harassment allegations that have prompted multiple investigations and, this week, a faculty censure vote targeting a professor of brain and cognitive sciences.

A report this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education also questioned Harvard University’s handling of allegations against a professor of Mexican studies.

Preventing harassment is “an important issue that has become, I think, through public pressure and also public awareness an urgent issue,” said Duke’s chief spokesman, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld. “President Price and the leadership of the university believe this is an important time, really an essential time, to take a look at ourselves from the standpoint of an academic workplace.”

Campus leaders hinted at the move in mid-February, when Academic Council Chairman Don Taylor reported to faculty members that there’d been a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions between key professors, Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth about “the breadth of the policies for the university” regarding harassment.

Schonfeld said it “has been in the works for a little while,” with the discussions also including Chancellor for Health Affairs Eugene Washington and the deans of Duke’s assorted schools and colleges.

Officials briefed campus trustees on the initiative late last week. While there wasn’t a vote, the trustees “support it,” Schoenfeld said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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