The Chronicle of Higher Ed: framing sexual harassment

The Chronicle of Higher Education newsletter just arrived on my computer and I was taken aback by the following blurb:

Notoriety Yields to Tragedy in Iowa Sexual-Harassment Cases


Arthur H. Miller, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa, was an internationally recognized expert on public-opinion polling. His colleague Mark O. Weiger was a celebrated oboist with an affinity for raunchy puns. When the professors were accused, separately, of sexually harassing students, each envisioned his career derailed, his reputation sullied. And in the span of three months, each took his own life.

The Chronicle does go to just about every US university, and to lots of sub-units within universities; it’s also read outside the States. So it seems to me worth raising some genuine questions about this blurb in the newsletter, and the report more generally.  Let me also note that as far as the reports I’ve read go, none of the allegations  has been ratified by the university.  The point here, moreover,  is certainly not to add to anyone’s miseryover this particular and awful situation.  Rather, the concern is solely with the report and its possible effects on the politics of harassment in universities.
      As the unfortunate contrast between “notorious” and “tragedy” suggests,** the report appears to be written by someone clueless about the politics of sexual harassment charges; given the author’s extensive coverage of gender in the Chronicle,  I assume the impression is misleading.  Nonetheless, it is there.   Thus the following:

Vicki L. Hesli worked with Mr. Miller for 20 years. She is the only female full professor in the political-science department and has served as its director of graduate and undergraduate studies. She would have been an obvious point of contact for any female students who felt uncomfortable with Mr. Miller. But, she says, “I never heard a complaint of any kind.”

In fact, Ms. Hesli says Mr. Miller helped jump-start her own career in the male-dominated field of political science, introducing her to important players and including her in research projects. “I probably would not be where I am in the profession were it not for him,” she says.

Unfortunately, no one with a grain of sense would go to the one senior woman in the department who was a protege of the alleged harasser. Equally sadly, the report can provide evidence for why alleging sexual harassment can provoke wide-spread hostility against the complainer, even from those quite remote from the facts.

The author claims, “The image of Mr. Miller squeezing students’ breasts and rewarding them with A’s was a stark contrast to the well-traveled, cultured man who enjoyed fine wine and good cooking, and whose teaching had been honored by the university with a photo in the library.”   Sorry, but cultured tastes in food and wine, along with legitimate power, does not necessarily make one a good person or an honorable professor.  How could you cover academia and think otherwise?!?

**The more specific “Alleged crimes eclipsed by ….” might  have set a different sense of the burden of proof.

7 thoughts on “The Chronicle of Higher Ed: framing sexual harassment

  1. Wow. This is a really infuriating way for campus sexual harassment to be portrayed. The victim is basically portrayed as “killing” the perpetrator by speaking up. That’s horrible.

    They would do well to include statistics on how many students who attempt or commit suicide are victims of harassment.

    What an obscene reversal of responsibility.

  2. Amanda, I think we need to remember that the charges made have not been proved. That said, to describe the situation in the terms done certainly suggests the guilt lies with the (alleged, supposed) victims. Or at least that’s how it is easily read.

    I think that’s unconscionable. It appears to me to be – I say carefully – yet another instance in which women end up the victims twice over, both through the perpetrator and through the narrative developed.

    I’m deeply disappointed in the Chronicle. I though the last 30-40 years marked some increased understanding among educated people of the realities of situations like this. Apparently not.

    I would love to see an effective defense from the Chronicle, though I cannot now imagine what that would be like.

  3. The author claims, “The image of Mr. Miller squeezing students’ breasts and rewarding them with A’s was a stark contrast to the well-traveled, cultured man who enjoyed fine wine and good cooking, and whose teaching had been honored by the university with a photo in the library.”

    This post was uncomfortable to read, but I’m glad I did.

    A well respected psychology professor, who specialized in treating men who sexually abused, pulled a wildly inappropriate sexual stunt on me. I said nothing, as I was all too aware that he, too, shared the above quoted image in the community.

    People are complicated. Most have many sides to their personalities.

  4. Thanks, Questiongirl. I recently had the unpleasant experience of someone with lots of power over me go in for fairly constant smutty talk. When I objected, I got targeted. It was pretty awful. This was my third major encounter with this sort of thing. As one might see in the Chronicle article, academia can quickly become poisonous, and the effects of a bad person can persist for a long time.

  5. I’ve actually been having a really hard time with the article and the response to it for quite some time– first the article itself, which to be completely honest, made me afraid of the idea that false accusations were going to be leveled against me and made me honestly believe there need to be more protections for professors. And that’s me, *as a female grad student* thinking that. Then, with the response on the feminist blogs, that made me realize how completely this fits in with the standard media practice of demonizing those who file sexual harassment/assault charges, and how completely I was taken in by the practice.

    I think when you look at the article in the wider context of the Chronicle’s career advice section — which is what I always read, since it’s free — it gets even creepier. The same week, there was an advice article listed on how to deal with the emotional impact of abusive feedback on teaching: students who don’t just tell you the class sucks but aim to injure. The collective message of the week seemed to be ‘they’re out to get you’, and paired with an article that connects faceless, merciless (the implication I get from the article talking about how one accuser is still pursuing her case against the dead professor’s estate) students filing charges that end in a noose… I’m still not quite over it. The Chronicle article gave me a good scare, and did a pretty good job of equating sexual harassment to a bogeyman that would drive me (or, more precisely, professor Me) to suicide. I hate to think that any professors went into department meetings after reading it, and what damage might have been done.

  6. Liz, I hope the probabilities of really bad experiences are pretty low. I hate to encourage a picture of normal academia as full of these threats. Still, it’s important is to know they are possible and to know what to do when they arise. Actually, I’m not myself totally clear about what to do, but some things are really importanat. First, create as clear a record as you can, including a detailed diary and whatever you’ve got in the way of a paper trail. Secondly, don’t be alone with students or even potentially problematic faculty. Thirdly, in addition to creating a paper trail, try to create a trail of your reporting a potential problem and asking for advice.

    In my experience, the worse thing is not harassment from below, but harassment from above, which I’ve experienced in one horrible case, and which I’ve seen devastate a career. The problem here is that a lot of universities protect according to “the chain of command” (disgusting phrase). That is, they’ll protect a person from allegations made by people ‘lower’ in status.

  7. “The image of Mr. Miller squeezing students’ breasts and rewarding them with A’s was a stark contrast to the well-traveled, cultured man who enjoyed fine wine and good cooking, and whose teaching had been honored by the university with a photo in the library.”

    This is a problematic paragraph, of course. There is nothing inherently moral or ethical about those who travel, are “cultured,” who enjoy fine wine and good cooking, and whose teaching lands their picture on a library wall. Did not the atrocities of Dachau occur within earshot of the opera?

    Furthermore, what does this say about those who cannot afford travel, fine wine, etc? Are those whose means are insufficient to enjoy the same luxuries somehow morally or otherwise inferior?

    It seems the paragraph from the Chronicle above invites a kind of unholy ideological alliance between the “prosperity doctrine” that is the common snake oil of too many televangelists and mega-church leaders (“If you are righteous, God will bless you with material prosperity…”) and the self-righteous, self-congratulatory elitism of the academy.

    I cannot, of course, comment on the innocence or guilt of the professor in question. But when the Chronicle engages in this kind of moralizing, protest must be raised.

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