Sexual harassment in academia: what now?
Imagine that you’re a first-year student who has just arrived at a big research university. You’ve been advised by guidebooks and peers to build relationships with your professors. “Find a mentor,” you hear again and again. So you dutifully attend your classes and haul yourself to office hours. For new students, both undergraduate and graduate, professors represent the tantalizing possibility of guidance or even the determiner of their academic destiny. No matter the exact situation, the professor-student relationship positions the student in a vulnerable place. What happens when a professor takes advantage of that vulnerability?
Unfortunately, we know the answer to this question. It looks like the former dean of Berkeley’s law school who allegedly sexually harassed his executive assistant, the Yale ethicist allowed to keep his position even after accused of making unwanted advances towards young graduate students in his field around the world, the Harvard professor whose alleged harassment drove out a junior colleague, and too many more cases, both publicly known and unknown, to enumerate. You’d think that people whose professional lives are devoted to furthering knowledge would know something about morality, yet the problem of sexual harassment is endemic in academia. This dynamic persists in such institutions not only because of the strict hierarchies that exist within them and the powerful incentives for silence about reputation-ruining transgressions, but also because of the failure of universities to produce positive norms about what healthy student-teacher relationships look like.
Few institutions of higher education clearly define norms of behavior in academic relationships, and few students come to college with an automatic understanding of such norms. Like so many professional institutions, the actors in higher education are ultimately playing a game with some unspoken rules on an uneven playing field. Unsurprisingly, some students start off with a boost. Students whose parents graduated college and/or who come from more affluent backgrounds often enter college with professional connections, networking know-how, and the savvy to seek out opportunities like internships and undergraduate research. Children of these parents have myriad options for achieving success, and more of a safety net if they fail.
But as education professor Linda Banks-Santilli writes in Quartz, “Higher education, with its unique culture, language and history, can be difficult for first-generation college students to understand.” For students for whom higher education is framed as a primary pipeline out of poverty, the stakes are much higher when it comes to a professor’s support. In the absence of clearly communicated norms, it is up to individual professors to give impressionable students a picture of what mentorship looks like. If they abuse their power, it may be harder for students without strong familial backing to seek help. Filing any kind of formal complaint about harassment requires interfacing with a labyrinthine bureaucracy. Not all students grow up in families that know how to navigate these systems with ease; language, class, geographic, and cultural barriers exist. First-generation students especially walk a tripwire in their relationships with professors: They have so much to lose, and little recourse if they are targeted.
But even students familiar with academic cultural norms are still vulnerable to one of their ugliest cultural aspects: how the idolization of “genius” in academia often excuses transgressional behavior. We are still too willing to turn a blind eye to these supposed geniuses’ crimes in the name of appreciating their work. When NYU professor Avital Ronell was accused by a graduate student of sexual harassment, numerous scholars rallied to sign a letter supporting her that stated, “We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.” Here, the implicit message is that Ronell’s intellect is more important than any alleged abuse. This dangerous message implies that publications and prizes essentially negate harassment, but contributions to a field shouldn’t tip the scales of justice in an abuser’s favor. Genius should never mean immunity from sanction.
Students aren’t just vulnerable because of powerful professors whose prestige allows them to go unchecked, however, but also because nobody tells them what good relationships with professors are supposed to look like, or presents a clear pathway for how to develop them. At orientation, students generally learn about how to sign up for classes, move into the dorms, avoid alcohol, and maybe to employ affirmative consent and bystander intervention, but there’s no “Good Relationships With Professors 101.” In the absence of a clear roadmap, you’re left to muddle around based on advice from your parents and peers if you’re lucky, improvisation if not.
I know this firsthand. I went to UC Berkeley, a big school where you sometimes have to compete with dozens of other students to see a busy professor for 15 minutes in office hours. In sophomore year, I felt like I was finally meeting professors who paid attention to me. One, B—, a professor of Indian philosophy, was jocular and personable. He made jokes in class and was popular in office hours; even on a Friday afternoon, dozens of students went in and out of his office. I had the last slot for his office hours one day. I didn’t quite understand the reading that week, I confessed, and he came and sat by me to explain key points sentence by sentence. I had come to college for a scene like this: the book splayed out on a large wooden table, my favorite professor and I sitting shoulder-to-shoulder to pore over ancient texts. About an hour after his office hours had officially ended, I finally checked my watch and apologized for taking up so much time. He said not to worry, smiling. Later, I would ask myself: If he had asked me to get dinner or walk home with him, what would I have said? I think I probably would have said yes. I would have been astounded, but I would have seen it as a kindness. After all, he was my professor.
I realized later that the utter propriety of our relationship was a lucky experience. When I came to class one day, he was gone. A grandfatherly professor from his department arrived to take his place. My classmate raised his hand and asked, “What happened to B—?”
“You can read about it in the newspaper,” the new professor said brusquely.
The room dissolved into whispers. My classmate leaned over to show me his phone. I saw the words “sexual harassment” and gasped.
Coming to college, I had wanted nothing more than that that scene in B—’s office hours: delighting in the pure pursuit of knowledge. Maybe that idyllic vision had been naïve. It certainly felt so when I read about what he’d done to graduate students who depended on him. I wondered how many other professors were just like him and how many bright-eyed students who arrive on college campuses with dreams like mine realize that their supposed mentors demand an unthinkable price for such a relationship.
Sexual harassment in academia doesn’t just do a disservice to individual victims; it drives a loss of talent and a silencing of perspectives that represents a loss for knowledge everywhere. To move forward, academics must prioritize integrity before intellectual contribution, devoting more attention to creating environments of respect and mutual care than to intellectual idolatry and protecting their own. Universities also have to give students and faculty alike clearer guidelines on how to engage in healthy ways by establishing clearly articulated boundaries and promoting norms for connection. For instance, institutions could more proactively organize formal opportunities for professors to provide mentorship, so that students coming into college are less desperate, confused, and vulnerable.
As a freshman considering maybe going into academia one day, I initially regarded my professors as remote figures churning out papers filled with words I didn’t understand, practically as gods on earth. It’s a dangerous kind of awe. If we are serious about eradicating sexual harassment from the ivory tower, perhaps one place to start is seeing scholars as human: capable of cruelty and rapacity and excess, certainly, but also of greater solidarity, responsibility, and care.
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