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Sexual harassment: an exaggerated view

The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus, by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner. Boston: Beacon Press. 219 pp. $16.95.

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in colleges and universities, both as a student and as a teacher, I have never actually encountered a case of ''sexual harassment.'' This does not convince me the problem does not exist. It does, however, make me a little skeptical of a book alleging that ''the morality of an entire profession can be tested by its response to a single issue'' - sexual harassment.

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Ms. Weiner, vice-provost for student affairs at the University of Cincinnati, and Ms. Dziech, a member of the Committee on Sexual Harassment at the same university, present a number of case histories. Most have the ring of truth and are sufficiently unambiguous as to leave no doubt that the professors in question were taking advantage of their status to intimidate female students - and not merely engaging in playful flirtation.

Even with grievance committees to protect them, harassed students are at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis their professors. As the authors rightly remind us, academia is a self-policing field, and the policing is lackadaisical. Its members, though racked by feuds, are quick to close ranks against any threat from the outside.

Add to this innate defensiveness a strong dose of sexism, and the results are faculties and administrations that refuse to face the problem. They prefer to believe, instead, the myth of the beautiful coed temptress luring the innocent professor to his doom and then crying wolf.

In their zeal to combat this false and dangerous stereotype, however, Dziech and Weiner paint in its place a lurid portrait of ''the lecherous professor.'' No, they cry, he is not a handsome man in a tweed jacket, but an aging, physically repulsive boor whom no woman would look at twice were she not afraid of failing his course. An ''outie'' from high school days, they surmise, the Lecherous Professor is busy taking his revenge on the athletic men he envied in his youth, now symbolized by the male students from under whose noses he steals the hapless coeds. Although I am sure the effect is unintentional, this caricature is rather uncomfortably reminiscent of the Third Reich's propaganda warning the German people against racially inferior Jewish doctors corrupting pure Aryan womanhood.

Comparing these misdeeds to Nazi crimes is, of course, inappropriate. But this is exactly what the authors do in their introduction, where the plight of harassed women is likened to that of concentration camp survivors trying to tell their horrifying story to a disbelieving world. Dziech and Weiner also are reluctant to admit that in some cases students are only too eager to enter into relationships with their teachers, either out of love or ambition, or some combination of both. The authors do provide a valuable service in alerting us to a serious campus problem and in debunking the myth of the seductive coed. But it may be equally misleading to create the myth of the Lecherous Professor.

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