A cautionary tale, to say the least

I’m not going to name names, but you can probably figure some of this out.  The moral of the story rests, however, not with who did it, but how it was done.

Suppose you are experiencing sexual harassment in an organizational setting.  All you have to do is to go to the relevant office for complaints?  Not exactly.  Thus the tale:

In the early 1990’s a friend of mine arrived at a large state university for her second job in academia.  She was quite wonderful, full of life and thought, and she had an assistant professorship.  Rather splendid looking, she was the sort that one can easily imagine a certain type of man might like to brush against and/or learn against.  Perhaps saying a few  “naughty words” in her ears and on  her email.  Yes, well that was her first job.  She sued on the grounds that “a chilly climate” was created, and she was compensated; this was in Canada. 

When she arrived at her second assistant professorship,  she was very wary.  Prepared for the worst, she got it, she maintains, from someone who, among other things, was having affairs in the department.  This time  the administration denied her allegations and were pretty  determined to stand by their man, along with belittling any evidence she had.   In the end, there was a settlement; he – with rumors of all sorts of misbehavior around him –  left to a lucrative professorship in another state, and she was given a supply closet as an office and two years’ salary, after which she was to leave.  Which she did, and she went on eventually to a successful career outside of academia.  She had some very difficult years, though.  It is hard to be treated as a worthless mistake for a long time and still feel much confidence.

And in the last several weeks the alleged harasser has hit the news.  He killed his wife, two friends and then himself.  

Moral:  Do not make any assumptions about whom  universities will defend.  From the Ivies  with graduate students locked in closets (true story,  I swear) down the tiers.

(Let me add a recognition of the many other great sorrows that are around this story, a number of them apparently stretching over about two decades.  My focus here, though, is on how academic hierarchies can act to protect the alleged perpetrator with little help available for the supposed victim.)

10 thoughts on “A cautionary tale, to say the least

  1. Indeed! And he might have gone for more, I suppose.

    It was very awful to see a promising career snuffed out, but clearly he went on to worse things eventually.

  2. It raises the important question of what can be done in academia to nip these problems in the bud. One of the difficulties with academia is that the more eminent the academic, the less recourse there is (one would imagine that the problem would not have been handled so badly if the harasser had been a new assistant professor and the harassed an eminent academic in her own right — or is even that optimistic?). It’s clear enough that self-policing won’t work all that well in such a case. What can be done to improve things a bit? Where is the system usually short circuiting in cases of harassment like this, and what can be done to compensate for that failure? I’m sure people who have actually had to deal with the problem would have interesting insights on this.

  3. Academia seems to favor the side of men — including in areas of homophobic harassment. A few years ago, I had a student who was becoming increasingly menacing — stalking, asking peculiar questions in class — tangentally connected to the material, generally creeping out the others in the class. When I brought it to the attention of administrators, they suggested that I may be a bit too hasty in my assessment of the student as a potential threat to others (I didn’t even bother to suggest that I might be a target).
    The student eventually gave me a “gift” in front of others at the end of class — an art piece of sliced up women. He said it was a birthday present. When I showed the “gift” to my dean, he told me that I am just making a big deal out of nothing — the student hadn’t done anything except be a bit inappropriate – not even enough to ask him to drop the class. When the student was camped out in front of my office with a knife, then some attention was given — If I hadn’t been so out, none of this would happen. I bring these things on myself.
    When I suggested that this wasn’t directed at my gay-ness but a threat against women, in general, it didn’t seem to matter.
    When the student was not charged with a crime nor expelled, the college was nice enough to get a restraining order for me and a new office — which was subsequently spray painted with “kill the queer”.
    After I filed a law suit, the college decided that I was a problem — I wasn’t fired, just evaluated each semester – despite tenure. Good to know that administrators care so much about the quality of education and the comfort of the learning environment.

  4. Liz, that’s appalling. Utterly appalling. I cannot believe that even being camped outside someone’s office with a knife is considered acceptable behaviour.

  5. Brandon, I think it’s very hard to do much if a university decides to protect the offender. As far as I can tell, they typically have a legal staff there to go to court and defend them. They can outlast just about anyone. There are, of course, more complicated steps one can take – e.g., involve the police – but I don’t know anyone who has tried that.

    In addition, too many people will perjure themselves rather than get targeted by coming to your defense. They don’t want the legal machine aimed at them next.

    Liz – your awful case is an example of the extent to which someone gets protected. It also seems like gross discrimination, unless they are so clueless that no complaints are taken seriously. It seems in addition a typical example of how a university can disregard the importance of its faculty’s time. These things are horribly stressful and time consuming.

  6. Monkey,

    Yes, as soon as I wrote it I had doubts. That’s very, very sad; there are few things that universities can be trusted to protect so stubbornly as what they perceive as their academic reputation, even to the point of being utterly shortsighted. If even that wouldn’t guarantee protection for even eminent female academics in cases of being harassed, then the cause of women in academia has even farther to go than often seems to be the case.


    Do you think there’s a need for some sort of external, independent legal organization devoted to the issue, to help compensate for the imbalance of power here?

    Although that wouldn’t fix the problem of people ducking their heads or looking the other way, which is probably the more serious problem here.

  7. At least in the UK, one thing to do is join the union. This is precisely what unions are for, to enable a collective voice to speak on behalf of people whose individual voices are silenced – and members are usually entitled to legal support, too…

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