What I learned from a week of slogging through the underbelly of sexual harassment in academia

Related Post: not-a-fluke-that-case-of-sexual-harassment-is-not-an-isolated-incident/ and sexual-harassment-in-academia-not-just-words/

A week ago I decided to fight back when yet another report of sexual harassment in academia surfaced (and another report cropped up in the intervening few days). Fed up with suggestions that sexual harassment was the problem of a single discipline, I decided to compile every case of sexual harassment in academia that I could find. After a day of searching, I had identified 36 such cases. I kept looking – using weird combinations of “sexual harassment” and various disciplines and states – and after a week had identified 143 cases of sexual harassment in academia where a finding of fact was made, there was a legal settlement, or the accused resigned quickly. This number does not include cases still being resolved or cases without evidence or findings. This is a REAL number. I am sure the number of documented cases of sexual harassment in academia will continue to rise – I update the post as a new case comes across my desk.

I discovered a few interesting things along the way:

1. SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN ACADEMIA IS NOTHING NEW. There are articles that stretch back to the 1980s discussing the sexual harassment problem on U.S. college and university campuses.

2. SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS NOT A DISCIPLINE-SPECIFIC PROBLEM. First, no single discipline has a “problem” with sexual harassment. I was able to identify more cases in English/Humanities/Creative Writing than in any other field, but I suspect the sample is biased since I could only report what I could find. Three of the cases that most recently captured the attention of the media revolved around astronomy, but I identified 143 cases in a wide range of disciplines just by looking for them. Sexual harassment occurs in every discipline.

Second, I encountered a surprising number of news stories that reported on a specific discipline and its sexual harassment problem. For examples, there are articles asking about sexual harassment in:

Clearly, we can’t be satisfied claiming that sexual harassment is occurring only in music, or english, or philosophy, or astronomy. Sexual harassment occurs in academia. We need to deal with it.

3. SEXUAL HARASSERS OFTEN LEAVE ONE SCHOOL ONLY TO MOVE ON TO SOMEWHERE ELSE. If you scan the list of cases, you will find any number of people who simply moved to a new school. In some of these cases, the harasser engaged in sexually harassing behavior again, much like Jason Lieb is accused of doing. My favorite cases are: 1) the two administrators who resigned over sexual harassment and were re-hired as special advisers to the president of the school, 2) the professor who resigned twice from two different schools for two different cases of sexual harassment, 3) the professor who was finally fired after two suspensions for sexual harassment, and 4) the university who asked a professor to resign over sexual improprieties and then rehired a decade later.

A recent conversation in the forum of the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrates why harassers moving to new schools is and will continue to be a problem. In this case, a graduate student was sanctioned by a Dean for sexually harassing another student. Many faculty on the forum indicated that they would not mention the sanction or would decline to write a letter of recommendation. Shouldn’t we be writing letters that tell the truth about our students and colleagues?

Given the ease with which sexual harassers are able to move from one institution to another, Representative Speier seems to be on to something when she proposes that records of faculty sexual harassment should follow faculty from one institution to the next.

4. SEXUAL HARASSMENT CASES TAKE A RIDICULOUSLY LONG TIME TO RESOLVE. I applaud anyone brave enough to report their sexual harassment, take the case through university channels, and/or sue through a court of law.  It took seven years for a case that started in the mid-80s to get through the courts and nine years for this case in the 90s. I’m sure cases being brought now will take just as long. Is this really acceptable?

5. SEXUAL HARASSMENT CAN BE CARRIED OUT BY UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS OR ENTIRE DEPARTMENTS. Very recently (2014), a department in Colorado was found to be supportive of a sexually harassing environment. This isn’t new – here is a case from the 1980s and another from the 2000s. Our university Presidents can engage in sexual harassment, as can our Deans. Sometimes, the people and spaces that are supposed to protect us simply can’t or won’t.

We know from research that students and faculty experience high rates of sexual harassment in academic settings (for example, in fieldwork). We know from this list that sexual harassment in academia happens, happens often, and happens across disciplines. I hope my colleagues are paying attention to the recent news surrounding sexual harassment in academia. I hope even more that we as academics begin to recognize sexual harassment as a longstanding and entrenched problem for which we are all responsible. I felt helpless in the face of recent news reports, and I wanted to combat the notion that these stories are somehow atypical. Bringing the real scale of the problem to light is perhaps the only thing we can do if we are ever going to make academia SAFE for each other and our students.

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