Along with many other industries, the #MeToo movement shook academia in the past year, with strong media coverage of how universities such as Harvard, New York University, and Dartmouthfailed to support graduate students and untenured faculty who came forward to report sexual harassment.
Most recently a religious studies professor and Duke University alumna posted a letter on Twitter asking why her PhD-granting institution had offered a Presidential Mentoring Award to a professor who repeatedly made overtly sexual comments about her in a first-year doctoral seminar. She wrote that she had reported his behavior to the University’s Office for Institutional Equity.
Given the momentum of the #MeToo movement, more stories of harassment in academia — and more stories of institutional failure to protect accusers — are likely to emerge.
Research documents how current Title IX practices work against accusers. Other studies describe women’s sense of institutional betrayal when universities fail to respond supportively to accusations of harassment.
In academia, senior faculty and administrators need to support and protect graduate students and junior faculty who are being harassed. Here are five strategies to support junior colleagues that we believe will help diminish the sense of institutional betrayal that often follows a mishandled harassment case.
1. Don’t assume sending someone to Title IX solves the problem. Title IX investigations can be frustrating, incomplete, and inconclusive and will not remedy the dynamics in a department. Nor will a Title IX investigation protect untenured colleagues from retaliation. In one case, after enduring unwanted sexual comments by a tenured male professor for several years, an untenured woman sought help from the Title IX office. Even though tenure depends on positive votes from senior faculty, the Title IX investigator dismissed the woman’s fears of retaliation, noting that the perpetrator was not in a “supervisory” role over her. Senior faculty and administrators, who know more about how academia works, must take it upon themselves to protect juniors who report harassment.
2. Safeguard the survivor’s chances for tenure and promotion. Have a policy in place that makes the recusal of accused perpetrators from major career decisions automatic. The accuser ultimately had to request — in a formal letter, and with the help of a lawyer — that the perpetrator not be allowed to vote on her tenure case.
3. Protect the survivor’s privacy. Senior faculty and administrators need to adhere to standards of professional behavior that include maintaining confidentiality. Sharing information with the perpetrator and other colleagues is a violation of trust and places the accuser at greater risk of retaliation.
4. Be aware of power dynamics. Senior faculty and administrators need to remember that power and status shape how people converse, encouraging politeness and deference on the part of the party with less power—even when that party is being asked to do things that go against her self-interest. Power dynamics also make it easier for the party with more power to interrupt, ignore, and forget the wishes of a junior colleague. When it comes to discussions of harassment, these dynamics can be especially corrosive. When graduate students and faculty disclose or discuss harassment, senior faculty and administrators need to take special care to engage in close and empathic listening.
5. Wishful thinking is not a solution. Advising junior colleagues that the perpetrator will “understand” and respond well is not realistic. The junior colleague and the perpetrator are not on an equal playing field, so this is wishful thinking. Minimizing the problem, and equating it with harmless flirtation or “compliments” is also insensitive and dismissive. All of these forms of wishful thinking add to the accuser’s burden and, intentional or not, absolve senior faculty and administrators of doing the hard work of shifting the departmental climate.
Sexual harassment has gone on for too long. In the current legal environment, there a possibility that responsibility for the problem will be punted back and forth between campus administrators and Title IX officers, with little to no real progress made in shifting departmental climates and cultures.
The way forward is for tenured faculty to hold themselves accountable for harmful work environments and create real change.
Simone Ispa-Landa is an Assistant Professor of Human Development & Social Policy at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.
Elizabeth Ananat is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University.