Our #MeTooPhD Moment

Today is Friday, when I post academic advice blog posts.  This week, I would certainly expect to post about the anonymous Sexual Harassment in the Academy Crowdsource Survey which in the space of exactly one week has garnered 1378 entries, and counting.*  That is 197 per day since it went live.  THIRTEEN more were added just in the time I have been writing this post.

If you wish to contribute your own completely anonymous account, please do so through this submission form, which will automatically enter your text into the spreadsheet.

I created the Survey, and the #MeTooPhD hashtag on Twitter, to provide a place for women to share their stories without fear of censorship or judgment, to know they are not alone, and to find strength in numbers and a foundation from which to recover and perhaps take action. There are many awful outcomes of sexual harassment in the academy, but perhaps the worst is that women are forced out of the academy entirely because of it, depriving the world of their talent, their gifts, their insights. And in truth, is this not ultimately the agenda of all sexual harassment in all fields?

The Survey has had quite an impact. I was interviewed for the CBC As It Happens radio show (which also aired on NPR), and have talked to reporters from Buzzfeed, Marie Claire, and Toronto Metro and fielded many other inquiries.

I can’t bring myself to write in detail about the contents of this Survey right now, however, because I find it completely overwhelming.  I can only read it in short bursts, because the things the brave contributors describe make me feel ill.  And not only the survey–my email inbox is filled with almost 100 emails from women naming their rapists and harassers, as well as the university administrators who protected them. They don’t send these names, and I don’t receive them, because we want to go public. They send them because they just want to tell someone.  They just want someone to know.  I am honored to be trusted with these names.

The stories are distressing to read, but they are not personally triggering to me.  I was not sexually harassed during my years in the academy. My male professors and colleagues treated me reasonably well, and when they didn’t, it was more in the realm of general shittiness than anything that could be listed in this survey.

I want to make that clear, because there are a couple of entries on the spreadsheet that try to make the point that “truly accurate representation” would include mention of women not being harassed, of women being treated with respect, in the academy. I can barely find words to express my rejection of this view.

Nobody gets a cookie for refraining from harassing women.

The fact that I personally didn’t experience a personal case of sexual harassment does not mean that such harassment was not rampant in my surroundings, and that it did not fundamentally shape the conditions under which I and all other women pursued our academic careers.

What the survey shows is that sexual predation is utterly pervasive in academic settings, and colors virtually everything we do.  As I said to reporter Colleen Flaherty, when she asked me for my thoughts on the Survey for her (excellent) piece covering it (thank you, Colleen) in Inside Higher Ed:

“I created the survey to give victims a place to share their stories, to know they are not alone and to realize the systemic, institutional, and patterned nature of sexual abuse in the academy. This is not meant to be a scientific survey; my goal is to provide a public space for the truth of sexual predation to be shared to help lessen the shame that victims feel in a context of secrecy, intimidation and silence, and also to remove plausible deniability by institutions. You cannot solve a problem if you can’t see it. This survey aims to make the problem visible to all.

What we see from the survey stories are three themes: first the pervasiveness and severity of the abuse — extending to rape, intimidation, and terrifying levels of stalking over months and years; second, the systematic protection of abusers over victims, and the sheer force of patriarchal solidarity in keeping powerful men insulated from consequences, and thus able to continue harassing tens or hundreds of victims over decades (and as bell hooks says: patriarchy has no gender, meaning, powerful women often support abusive patriarchal academic structures that victimize junior women); and third, the devastating consequences for academic women, leading to the loss of their contributions to the world of scholarship. Countless women on the survey describe being hounded out of the Ph.D. entirely, being forced to change projects or advisors or institutions, resulting in disrupted work and loss of funding and continuity, being forced to conduct their work under conditions of terror and siege — some even describe having to hide in closets and empty rooms to avoid their harasser, or having to move their residence repeatedly, or avoid certain conferences or meetings. How can best work be done under such circumstances??? The result is an incalculable loss of women’s contribution to scholarly life. When people bemoan the loss of the contribution of Famous Man X, they are ignoring the loss of contribution of the 5 or 25 or 50 or more women he harassed out of the field entirely.

I hope that this survey makes for a powerful #MeTooPhD moment in the academy which will disrupt its entrenched systems of sexual abuse once and for all. I hope it makes men feel uncomfortable, and makes them closely examine their own behavior and that of their male colleagues, and ask: how have I participated in or enabled similar stories to those I am reading here? The goal is not for women to try and stop being harassed. It’s for men to stop being sexual predators.”

I can do no better than to end this post with the piece Dirty Old Men on the Faculty by Sheila McMillen in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week (bolding added).  McMillen had a long career and has things to say. Her words burn.

Let me provide a little history.

In December 1973, when I was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, Esquire magazine published an article by R.V. (Verlin) Cassill, a professor at Brown University, called “Up the Down Coed,” subtitled “Notes on the Eternal Problem of Fornication With Students.” It begins with a student — “the girl,” as he calls her — coming to his office and asking his help on interpreting the Rilke poems he has assigned. He reads aloud the line giving her difficulty: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?”

He dismisses her trembling earnestness, her clothes: “dungarees with a patched jacket — a costume I find boring and pretentious,” and assures the reader that the meeting “can not lead to something the reader might find … reprehensible.” He goes on to lament his aging and the end of “the golden era of faculty-student copulation on our campuses,” and adds jocular reminiscences of his escapades with coeds when he was younger. In his view, they were the instigators: “Many girls matriculate knowing that if the professorial lamp is properly rubbed, the phallic genie will pop out.”

Though not well known now, Cassill was at the time a respected writer and teacher. The author of 24 novels, he was a founder of the Associated Writing Programs and, before his time at Brown University, a faculty member at the Writers Workshop of the University of Iowa. Shortly after the Esquire piece was published, The Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper, ran a story with the headline “Verlin Cassill: Another D.H. Lawrence or Just a Dirty Old Man?” Cassill’s article was outrageous even for its day, and I suspect he intended it to be so — he said in a sarcastic reply that the piece had been written “out of laughter and tenderness” and that he “sneered deliberately.” He certainly ended his Esquire essay on a note of droll waggery, referring back to the Rilke quote: “Who — if she and I cried out in unison — gladly — would hear us among the angelic orders? (A professorial joke. Heh, heh).

I could see the intended humor of the Esquire article, but as a “girl” myself, I also felt like the butt of the joke. When I visited professors during office hours with questions, did they see me giving “wide-eyed … signals of consent,” as a “sly little wonder” eager for their sexual attention? Did they see my eyes as “little jeweled orifices, quivering vortices down which the noblest intentions might plunge and be lost”? I had one more semester until graduation; cautioned, I don’t think I went to any more faculty-student conferences.

Beyond the Daily Herald article and a letter or two, there weren’t any repercussions for Cassill, who continued to teach at Brown until his retirement, as an emeritus professor, in 1983.

That was such a long time ago, you might think.

In 1993, by which time I was teaching in the English department at the University of Virginia, Harper’s magazine published the transcript of a forum titled “New Rules About Sex on Campus.” An editor at Harper’s, Jack Hitt, led the discussion with four faculty members: John Boswell, a professor of history at Yale University; Joan Blythe, an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky; William Kerrigan, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; and Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. The topic under consideration: Should campuses institute prohibitions against romantic entanglements between professors and students?

All four academics opposed a ban. The reasons for Kerrigan’s opposition were astonishing. He said that he often dealt with “a kind of student … working through something that only a professor could help her with. I’m talking about a female student who, for one reason or another has unnaturally prolonged her virginity.” He made it clear that he had been willing to be that helpful professor: “There have been times when this virginity has been presented to me as something that I … can handle.”

Could there be a creepier perversion of noblesse oblige?

To Botstein’s credit, he said. “Let me say this: I think sexual relations trigger a set of ethical obligations,” to which both Blythe and Kerrigan responded: “Ethical obligations?” As if the idea were absurd.

At a subsequent meeting at the University of Massachusetts, the Faculty Senate disavowed Kerrigan’s comments without censuring him. No one at Kentucky seemed bothered by Blythe’s comment.

That was such a long time ago, you might think.

Nearly a quarter-century later, I’m retired. I hope that those in the academic world who are tempted to make the kind of comments Cassill and Kerrigan found acceptable would think twice in this era of social media, when an intemperate remark can bring out the online pitchforks.

But the recent accusations of sexual harassment against faculty members at Berklee College of Music and the University of California at Berkeley, at the University of Virginia, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College, suggest that while faculty members may now be more circumspect about what they say, they remain less so about what they do.

Unfortunately, none of this happened a long time ago.

While faculty members may now be more circumspect about what they say, they remain less so about what they do. I’ve often wondered if there are more sexual predators in academia than in other environments. Where else is there an unending procession — renewed annually — of enticingly attractive young men and women, often unsure of themselves and eager to be in your good graces? It’s a setup rife with possibilities for manipulation, if one is so inclined. Rather like “shooting fish in a barrel,” as Cassill said, and all too easy.

Some argue that what professors say to students in and out of classrooms is an issue of free speech — oh, campuses are full of sensitive snowflakes who can’t take a joke or compliment. But, according to a study forthcoming in the Utah Law Review, the majority of harassment charges that the researchers investigated included not only verbal abuse but also unwelcome physical contact. That’s when harassment crosses the line to assault.

I’d like to think we’ve finally reached a tipping point in awareness, that the surge in accusations of harassment signals that the attitudes and behavior that Cassill and Kerrigan endorsed will now get the condemnation they deserve. But it’s not enough that predators realize they need to watch their words. They also need to consider their deeds — or be hit with more than a slap on the wrist. I certainly hope that’s what the future holds. I’d hate to think students must wait another 45 years to see real change.

For now, this is what I can write.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all the women who have contributed to the survey.

*Please note that the number of lines in the spreadsheet does not equal the number of substantive entries. The content is entered through a form, and if someone starts the form but doesn’t submit it, that leads to a blank line in the spreadsheet. Thus there are more lines than there are entries. I have access to an accurate running tally of actual substantive entries, and that is the figure that I cite here and in other writing and interviews.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Our #MeTooPhD Moment — 11 Comments

  1. I was just looking at the spreadsheet, and it looks like line 1469 is a fake/troll entry (time stamp 12/9/2017 11:58:31). Such a shame that anyone would see fit to mock such a grave, widespread problem.

    Thank you so much for doing this, it has been a long time in coming.

  2. Dear Karen,

    As a man, I discussed the #MeToo issue with some of my (female) friends and colleagues for quite a while. I learned that even though I never conducted sexual harassment, there are some things I could do to make women for comfortable in the public space (e.g., when walking towards a women in a lonly street during the middle of night, change to the other side as the women does not know whether I’m this or that kind of person). Having read your posts, I was wondering whether you (or any of your readers) have similar strategies for the academic world. For example, I thought about leaving my door always open during my office hours so (female) students feel more comfortable because the spot is less enclosed and more public (colleagues and other students walk by frequently). However, there are limits to this, especially when private issues like grades or research assistant contracts are discussed. Well, I can still “hide” behind a big table, creating some sort of space between me and the students. But as my experience with sexual harassment (especially in academia) is extremely limited and I’m not well suited to take a female perspective here, I was wondering if there are any further ideas/suggestions…

  3. Office Door left open about 4-5 inches:
    Decades ago, as an undergrad I had an appointment with a professor. Because hallway was noisy with students heading to classes, I closed the office door behind me as I entered his office. Explaining that it was a university rule to leave the door open, the professor reopened the office door.

  4. I was a faculty member who filed formal complaints charging a colleague with harassment and sexual assault in 2009 against nine women who worked for him, including two students. Two colleagues joined me in filing separate complaints. An investigation ensued that made a finding that a ‘severe hostile work environment’ existed, but didn’t address the multiple incidents of sexual assaults. He was allowed to return to his position; and all of us were blamed and told ‘we were being given a second chance’. Because there was joke telling among the group, they were told they had been ‘unprofessional’. Of course, the senior colleague against whom the complaints were filed, engaged in sexual jokes and frequent references to women’s anatomy.

    Three months later, I stumbled into the uncovering of fraud; that could not be covered up so easily.

    The net result of reporting two decade long patterns of criminal behavior, was that the faculty member accused of two serious patterns of crimes, was sent home and paid for a year, while he gained the credentials to teach and began teaching in a local high school, double dipping at taxpayer’s expense. When the federal investigation of his massive fraud ended, our whole group had left (some of us couldn’t find other work). As a ‘double whistleblower’ nothing was done at all to protect me or others who filed complaints. in fact, I was severely retaliated against; when I appealed for help, they even had the gall to deny the retaliations without any effort to investigate or examine documentation. I documented everything; but it’s impossible unless you are already independently wealthy to take on a public institution whose attorneys intentionally drag litigation out for years and have an unlimited budget.

    Abuse causes horrendous emotional and pyschological harm to all who are in the environment; it diminishes the basic human dignity we all share.

    We need to not only stop the abuser, but deal with the other serious issues; I am encouraged to see women finding their voices and standing togehter in the #metoo movement. Forcing abusive men to be stopped is absolutely the right ‘first step’. Forcing them to be stopped and forcing them to be terminated is absolutely necessary. But more is also needed.

    We need at least two other major efforts; those who have engaged in harming others need to be ‘held accountable’-stopped, YES. They need to be prevented from FURTHER HARM. In the case I was involved in, the man was RETURNED TO HIS POSITION. Life became a living hell for the next seventeen months for all of us who still reported to him!!

    He was NEVER HELD ACCOUNTABLE. That needs to be done–there’s no statute of limitations on sexual assault in the state where this took place.

    On October 16, several of the women I worked with, posted their own #metoo stories; nine years later, they still struggle with shame and the powerlessness; blaming themselves for ‘not doing more’; but FINALLY talking about it out loud. I regret severely the action i took to try and stop abuse–because of the HARM it caused THEM-when officials covered it up.

    Those who cover up CRIMES need to be held accountable, too. They have NO PLACE IN ACADEMICS. And need to be held accountable for covering up CRIMES. Officials were at one university–Penn State.

    But the major area that we also need to focus on, is helping the people abuse affects to recover.

    When people experience other kinds of trauma that cause emotional and psychological damage, we actually RUSH IN TO HELP.

    Who else but those who are finding the COURAGE, wisdom, intelligence and resolve to STOP the abuse and STOP the abusers, is fitted to find answers that will help people impacted severely, to RECOVER?

    It’s GOOD to STOP the abusers; act so they are stopped; they need to be stopped PERMANENTLY–held accountable-prosecuted in some cases, mandated for treatment, if that’s possible.

    But we need to focus our energy where we focus it when people are harmed; on seeing that people affected by abuse are HELPED in TWO major areas–their healing, and the RESTORATION that is RIGHT, MORAL, ETHICAL AND LAWFUL that they are DUE.

    Women struggling with the abuse they endured–NINE YEARS LATER–it’s UNCONSCIONABLE to me-that NO ONE HELPED THEM and even today–NO ONE IS HELPING THEM.

    As a faculty member, in a faculty governance institution-IT WAS MY RESPONSIBILITY TO STOP A SEXUAL PREDATOR to ENSURE that EVERYONE had a ‘safe working environment’. I went for HELP. TWo colleagues joined me. Senior officials COVERED UP CRIMES and blamed the ‘victims’. (I don’t like the world ‘victim’–I think about abuse as crime by predators who look for ‘targets’. The women I worked with were NEVER ‘victims’ in the way we use that term. They were amazing, incredible, gifted, STRONG people. THIS predator TARGETED people who were HIGHLY CAPABLE….

    WE KNOW how o help people traumatized by a natural disaster. We rush in to HELP, letting them know first of all that they are not alone! Then we take care of their IMMMEDIATE PHYSICAL Needs and in doing so–we address their IMMEDIATE emotional needs.

    But we don’t stop there.

    WE come alongside people who have been TRAUMATIZED. And we stand WITH THEM and work WITH them-to see that they are able to RECOVER and REBUILD their LIVES. If they’ve suffered harm or loss–we find the HELP THEY NEED to recover from the harm and restore what they have LOST!

    The impact of abuse brings much harm and many losses.

    Nine years later–I still can’t even come to grips with either the harm or the loss I experienced–the facebook posts made it clear that those TARGETED for abuse–are jsut now beginning to grapple with the harm-and there’s been NO CONVERSATION WHATSOEVER about the issues involving LOSSES.

    STOPPING abusers is an absolutely right thing to do; let’s keep in sight that the full goal involves helping those impacted to recover wholeness and see restoration of what they have lost both directly and as a consequence of the actions of predatory abusers.

    And consider other goals as well that are far reaching. Respect for one another and creation of a different work environment than what exists today.

    {side comment for Karen–the sad saga of Eric Smart’s reign of terror and ongoing potential reign of terror in a local high school, appeared on the front page of the Lexington Herald Leader in four carefully crafted stories published over two weeks, followed by a scathing editorial. Sadly, a year after the penn state scandal, the cover up of abuse in a medical school, didn’t elicit any visible public response, let alone the outrage a faculty representative to the Board of Trustees was hoping for–he did try and take action with the support of 3 other Trustees to the full Board, but they tabled the matters).

    It cost me everything to stop a man who had been abusing women, and reported previously multiple times….his fraud in science had also been reported, formally. Both could have been ‘nipped in the bud’ but officials chose to do nothing–condoning his decade long crime sprees. I lost my position, livelyhood and career; he’s now a public high school teacher–and all of us wee punished for HIS CRIMES.

  5. Asian Slumdog Professor: Untenured and Terrified #metooPh.D

    In my early 40s, I obtained a World Bank Merit scholarship to come half way across the world: from Asia to America to pursue my Ph.D at a public top ten University in America.

    I was a single mom of 3 and I started my career as an assistant professor in America in my fifties.

    I still have limited understanding of American Culture…

    When my dean walked into my classes unannounced, treated me disrespectfully in front of my students, then followed up with calling me to his office and telling me : “Ha! Ha! Ha! I intimidated you! Ha! Ha! Ha!, I intimidated you!”, I was terrified.

    He continued harassing me through my applications for tenure with: “I want to play games with you, I want to play games with you…” and “Do you WANT TENURE? DO YOU WANT TENURE?”..
    I could not understand what sorts of games he wanted to play…? and why did he kept asking me such obvious questions?

    Despite giving me positive verbal feedback on my classroom teaching as well as verbally saying he will write them and put them in my Personal File…he never kept his verbal promises. Instead, he wrote negative classroom observations etc. and put them in my Personal File.

    Long story short, I survived 7 years as assistant professor; did not make tenure twice and have been out of academia for 6 years.

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