Guilty If Charged

This fall on the campus of the University of New Hampshire there suddenly appeared a set of five dramatically large posters that spelled out the sins against which war would be officially waged. “Sexism has no place at UNH,” one poster said. “We seek not only to be a diverse community but a caring one.” Below that, in boldface print the poster said: “Tell someone. File a complaint,” and it listed telephone numbers by which students and faculty could inform against malefactors in their midst. Other posters of exactly the same format urged students to complain about racism, homophobia, discrimination, and religious persecution.

These evils, of course, have no place at any university, but questions have been raised whether the campaign to combat them fosters a tolerant community at the University of New Hampshire. Last spring at UNH, a clash of opinions took place over a proposal to expand the university’s official policy on harassment to include not only sexual behavior but any remarks that created “a degrading, intimidating or hostile environment.” I spoke to Chris Burns-DiBiasio, the director of the Affirmative Action Office and the policy’s principal author, who argued that the code would result in no overzealous prosecutions. Harassment, she assured me, “must involve a pattern of repetition such that a reasonable student would be offended.” “Reasonable student” seems the key term. One case at UNH that has now reached the courts in the form of a lawsuit charging the university with wrongful dismissal shows that aroused students and an administration that encourages people to become informers cannot always be counted on to be reasonable.

The case involves J. Donald Silva, a tenured professor of English who has taught at UNH for thirty years and, as it happens, is also the pastor of the Congregationalist Church on Great Island, a couple of miles from Portsmouth. Silva is fifty-eight years old, the grandfather of four; he has an MA in English from UNH and has published just two articles, both of them about the Portuguese island of Madeira. Until his recent troubles, he was a full-time teacher in the Thompson School of Life Science, a two-year college attached to UNH, most of whose students are preparing for careers in such subjects as animal science, forestry, and horticulture. Silva was part of a tiny humanities faculty at the Thompson School. Every other semester he taught three or four sections of a mandatory course on technical writing, with about twenty-six students in each section.

The sexual harassment charges against him began in one technical writing class early in the spring of 1992 when Silva was trying to explain the concept of “focus” to his students. “Focus is like sex,” he said, trying, he told me later, to capture what he perceived to be the students’ flagging attention. “You zero in on your subject. You seek a target. You move from side to side. You close in on the subject. You bracket the subject and center on it. Focus connects…

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