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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