Civil Liberties

Who's Harassed Now?

Sexual politics in California


In 2003, on the eve of his historic election as California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was hit with a multipart series in the Los Angeles Times alleging that the famous actor had groped 16 unwilling women in the workplace. Partly as a result, a protein crystallization analyst at the University of California at Irvine is on the verge of losing his job.

Less than a year into his first term, in a move widely perceived as an effort to shore up his image on the issue, Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring every California employer with more than 50 workers to provide sexual harassment training to all its supervisors once every two years. While most trainees have complied, Alexander McPherson, a professor at U.C.-Irvine, refuses. "I believe the training is a disgraceful sham," he wrote in the Times last November. "As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ.…The state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repugnant and offensive."

McPherson offered to take the training course if the university would provide a letter absolving him of suspicion, but instead of compromising university administrators tightened the screws. Not only did they relieve McPherson of his duties supervising two research scientists; they wrote letters to the professor's funders at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health, informing them that McPherson was noncompliant and no longer a supervisor.

"The point is it's an inanity, and they're trying to kill my grant because I won't participate in that inane process," McPherson told The Scientist in December. "Does that make sense? Not to me."

The reluctant professor might not be the only one penalized under the policy. In October a top U.C.-Irvine official made it known that noncompliant employees will soon face a number of penalties, including loss of their Internet access.