28th 2012
The institutional response to harassment

Posted under: Gender, GLBTQ, jobs, students, unhappy endings, wankers

Tenured Radical has a great post about sexual harassment on campus.  Her post was motivated by an allegation of harassment by a student against a professor on her former campus, but I believe her advice is spot on for anyone harassed or bullied by someone in a greater position of power and authority on a college or university campus, not just students.  You should read and think about her whole post, but I think the upshot of it is here:

I have argued for some time that most people are not adequately prepared for the possibility that they will be harmed in some way on a college or university campus. Who includes in a college or grad school to-do list: “Think seriously about how to respond if a professor/senior colleague makes unwelcome advances”? The vast majority of students who make it to a four-year college or university have succeeded at school and tend to assume that administrators have their best interests in mind because they have rarely or never experienced anything else.

Wrong -o. Administrators are not in charge of justice or empathy, as anyone in the vocational track at your high school might have told you. They protect the best interests of the institution, as they understand them, and will do a great deal to silence people who threaten a school’s reputation. This includes throwing individual students and faculty who have turned into walking lawsuits under the bus and covering up faculty misbehavior many times over. And it does not include the highly public process of breaking faculty tenure to get a creepy jerk, chronic groper or bigot off campus.

Memorize this:  Institutions are in the business of protecting themselves.  They will not protect victims of people who have succeeded within the institution on the institution’s own terms.  This is why serial harassers protected by tenure, other faculty bullies, and department chairs and deans who menace their faculties and/or students (or who are just incompetent) will in 99 cases out of 100 never suffer any serious institutional sanctions for their behavior.   Now, most faculty and most administrators are decent people trying to do good by doing their jobs well.  But the fact of the matter is that anyone who has won tenure  and promotion–that is, who has succeeded within the institution on the institution’s own terms–is going to enjoy the reflexive protection of said institution. 

Institutions have already invested a great deal in a tenured faculty member, especially one who has an administrative role too, whereas students (who are by definition transient members of the institution), staff members, and untenured faculty are viewed as expendable.  In other words:  they’re stuck with the guy (or gal) who may be a “creepy jerk, chronic groper or bigot,”  but ze’s their creepy jerk, chronic groper, or bigot, whereas victims are free to leave the campus and find another school or job.

I experienced this myself at a previous institution, where everyone I talked to admitted that the department chair who pushed me around was charmless, ineffective, and incompetent, but she was their charmless, ineffective, and incompetent department chair. My complaints about her were effectively a challenge to the dean’s and the provost’s judgment in permitting her to chair a department, and maybe even an implicit challenge to the decision to tenure her as well. I wasn’t tenured–the institution hadn’t invested nearly as much in me as they had in her, so it was just fine with everyone that I chose to resign and move on.

Victims of abusive treatment  of any and all varieties need to understand that asking for redress or sanction of the abuser is tantamount to a challenge to the legitimacy of the institution’s policies and procedures.  This is something that an institution will never entertain, as the institution is justified and legitimized (if only in its own mind) by the application of these policies and procedures.  The institution cannot and will not suffer any challenges to its own legitimacy, so we’re back to where we started:  Institutions are in the business of protecting themselves.


51 Responses to “The institutional response to harassment”

  1. truffula on 28 May 2012 at 11:13 am #

    My university recently made a big commitment to training employees about harassment and discrimination and we have a growing “if you hear about it, investigate it” culture at the administrative level. I think it’s about time but many of my colleagues have a bad attitude, either out of defensiveness or because they think they already know everything there is to know. Trust me, if you think you know everything there is to know about harassment and discrimination, you don’t.

    My impression is that there is as much or more money at stake in not taking reports seriously than there is in firing a truly bad employee (if what you have/have not done is uncovered). I would add though that investigations take time and the employee should have representation. Our union is good at taking up the case of the accused, as it should be, and this too rubs some people the wrong way. Whomever does not get what they want out of the process concludes that the process does not work, I suppose. Overall, I think most of my colleagues are fairly ignorant about issues, process, and outcomes.

    As you say, Historiann, institutions are in the business of protecting themselves. Here, that seems to mean displacing liability from the university and to the individual who did not report what should have been reported. Training gets both the institution and the individual some protection. Plenty of my colleagues are willing to turn a blind eye or figure that they can “work it out” internally when concerns are raised. Putting individuals on the spot for their own complicity has value in this environment.

  2. joellecid on 28 May 2012 at 11:16 am #

    I had this experience as a graduate student, trying to help another student who had been harassed by our professor. We made the mistake of thinking the administration would help, but they did not. They put a letter in this professor’s file and made claims that he would never supervise TAs again. The student who was harassed left the program and the department gave the prof the class again. I got him taken off the course — reminding the department head of the letter in the file. And what of the professor? — worked his way up the administrative food chain until he was a provost at an R1.

    I am an advocate of stopping the pretense that the university is separate from the regular justice system. Here’s to police reports and EEOC claims!

  3. Protect ThySelf on 28 May 2012 at 11:52 am #

    That is why, depending on the gravity of the situation, I plan to murder the man who harasses my child when ze makes it to the university.

  4. truffula on 28 May 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Here’s to police reports and EEOC claims!

    Absolutely. And good work, joellecid, standing up for other students. Personnel files are confidential (as they should be), which makes a “letter in the professor’s file” nearly worthless.

  5. Comradde PhysioProffe on 28 May 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Institutions are in the business of protecting themselves.

    Absolutely. And this is why the only reliable way to obtain justice when a powerful vested member of an institution harms a weaker transient member is to muster extra-institutional power.

  6. LadyProf on 28 May 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Colleges and universities trade on a veneer of benevolence to the vulnerable members of their community. They even call themselves by a Latin name that means nourishing mother! My alma mater, along with the other alma maters I know of, tended to side with the more powerful person (or sector) in every binary dispute that started with an accusation. Although sometimes, to be fair, they managed to piss off both the disputants.

    If I had a daughter or son about to matriculate somewhere, or a friend about to take a job as an instructor or assistant prof or staffer, I would say something like “Beloved U is not your friend and may not wish you well when the chips are down; if anything happens, do an Internet search, see how others have fared.” TR’s post, for example, drew some tips by a lawyer (once you get past a silly fight somebody picked about the word hir).

  7. Janice on 28 May 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    I have a daughter who’ll be starting university in another year. You can believe you me that I’ve told her all about these concerns, having seen at multiple institutions how loathe administrators and committees are to actually do something about someone.

  8. koshembos on 28 May 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    The issue is wider than just harassment. Institutions are in the business of protecting themselves isn’t a complete picture of that aspect of the problem.

    Harassment, discrimination, complaints about rules and procedure violations and revenge acts are typically rejected and ignored by the powers that be. As stated, organizations are in the business of protecting themselves.

    Rejecting and ignoring major ethical and rule violation off hand stem from the organization but also from arrogance of power and individuals in power being unable and unwilling to stray from the safe, routine and secure organizational life.

  9. Indyanna on 28 May 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Even extra-institutional power can be pretty unavailing, as in a small town, or a plain state, or a university activity that has “reach” beyond the academy itself. c.f. the recent piece about assault and other abuses around the football program at U. of Montana. The big state lumberjacks up in Helena, or wherever, think it’s just terrible that something happened to….. to the prOWWW-grAMMM, that’s what. Whatever may have happened to those other folks is just collateral dammage.

  10. Historiann on 28 May 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    I don’t want to be a complete Debbie Downer here. I share truffula’s hope that the intervention of right thinking people can make a difference, but it just seems like the prerogatives and interests of The Institution take over and predominate even in the face of good will by people in positions of some power. Hence, the complaining student in the post that got this whole thing started honestly (and probably correctly) thought that administrators sympathized with him and thought that the offending professor’s behavior was wrong and shouldn’t have happened. But in most cases, The Institution’s policies and procedures demand a particular set of responses that are all about indemnifying the institution rather than protecting (let alone compensating) the victim.

    In the end, I’m left with the thought that people should just name names, loudly and often, so that 1) other students or vulnerable people will be forwarned, and 2) so that the institution will be shamed into action. Tenured Radical’s post hints at this, but it’s clear that the only thing that will motivate The Institution to act is the fear of shame or scandal, which is why confidentiality agreements should be rejected by students and administrators told to go f^(k themselves. Also: students should publicize their allegations widely via social media (blogs, twitter, and fB), and hope that Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Ed picks up the story.

    Actually, an e-mail to Scott Jaschik at IHE might do the trick. I get the sense that he is interested in bias issues, so all of you victims keep that in mind. Professors really aren’t all that powerful–most of us don’t have any money, so don’t fear slander or libel lawsuits from us. Remember, The Institution is only protecting the offending faculty because scandal can hurt The Institution, not because they actually like or respect the offending faculty. Faculty are actually pretty weak and poor (most of us, anyway) without institutional protection.

  11. truffula on 28 May 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    The trend I report at my uni us very new and we will see where it goes. I am optimistic because the singular person driving it is an outsider and a woman. She has hired young lawyers with civil rights training and from what I’ve seen, they don’t put up with preciousness from my annoying colleagues who are totally not ist. Neither did the veteran DoJ lawyer who came to give my department personalized training (because we deserved it). This change came at a price, the lawyerly sensibility got the ombuds office canned. We shall see if that was a good bargain or not.

  12. Historiann on 28 May 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Wow–it sounds like someone’s cleaning house at your uni! In that case, maybe your optimism (which I thought was rather UNcharacteristic of you, BTW) is warranted.

    However: it takes a great deal of force and determination to change the policies and procedures that justify The Institution. I will be eager to hear how the experiment works at your place, truffula.

  13. Grad Student on 28 May 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    In re “institutions are in the business of protecting themselves,” see also: Institutional Review Boards. Anyone who thinks the purpose of the IRB is to protect human research subjects is horribly misguided. The purpose of an IRB is to protect the institution from being sued. That IRB procedures also protect human subjects is a nice secondary effect. Similarly, the university requires regular sexual harassment education so they can say “it’s not our fault! We’ve educated the employees on how not to behave!”

  14. Lance on 29 May 2012 at 3:54 am #

    I am a total downer on this one, too. Here – and perhaps elsewhere? – the problem is that in a university of 35,000 students and 2500 faculty nearly every department (I kid you not) has at least one older male faculty member who has ditched wife #1 (or #2) for a former graduate student. Without any real career damage. The mythos of “consensual” relations with graduate students is everywhere. And it screws up the capacity of the institution (literally) to understand how power works. Not just because it transforms a form of abuse into a “normal” thing. But also because it puts (gender emphasis is factual) *men* who have already profited from sexual authority in positions of extraordinary institutional authority.

  15. Perpetua on 29 May 2012 at 4:40 am #

    I don’t want to derail from the larger important point about students prey to institutional coercion (we see this all the time not only in sexual harassment cases, but more devastatingly in the dramatic underreporting of sexual violence and rape on campus, as we’ve discussed here before), but I wanted to second H’ann’s point in the thread about the powerlessness of most faculty, stripped of institutional support. My (now former) uni was lawyered to the teeth, but I always felt keenly the complete indifference of the institution to its faculty, and the awareness how easily we would be cut loose if it decided we were the loser in the situation. And the increasing involvement of parents in students’ lives + litigiousness have meant uni’s legal departments freaking out over things like plagiarism accusations (in some places, a faculty member cannot accuse a student of plagiarism without the most ironclad of proof, along the lines of here’s the paper you copied that I found word for word on the internet; even then, that’s not enough, since it doesn’t prove “intent” which is now increasingly tied to plagiarism. I used to have to try to get students to “confess” as the only way of making the charge stick. Very inquisitorial.) I mention these things only as further examples of institutional selling out of moral and ethical values in favor of legal CYA. Of course, botched sexual harassment and sexual assault cases have significantly more devastating effects on the victims.

    @Lance: word. Great points about the normalization of predatory culture at universities.

  16. J. Otto Pohl on 29 May 2012 at 4:43 am #

    I definitely agree for all kinds of things that Administrations only represent their own interests at universities. Which brings me to a point not covered either here or TR. That while institutions may often defend faculty guilty of criminal behavior they will always defend administrators. So not only is it likely the administration will be of no help against faculty in a case of harassment. It will never be of any help against an administrator. Unfortunately extra institutional powers also tend to be negligent.

  17. J. Otto Pohl on 29 May 2012 at 4:56 am #


    The alleged lack of mens rea of “intent” interpreted as “motive” is used to justify all kinds of criminal and unethical actions. It is also in most cases almost impossible to prove. If I provide a website which is word for word identical to student’s paper (usually they copy off of wikipedia) that should be sufficient proof of plagiarism. That it is evidently not in some US universities makes me feel a little bit better about the huge stack of marking I have just finished here in Ghana.

  18. Widgeon on 29 May 2012 at 5:54 am #

    I also found TR’s post extremely helpful. When I complained about harassment from a male colleague, the administrators I spoke to seemed genuinely concerned and chagrined. Then they gave him an endowed chair. I was lucky enough to be able to leave the institution, something a graduate or undergraduate student would not be able to do.

  19. John S. on 29 May 2012 at 8:13 am #

    @ Lance and @Perpetua: I wanted to ask: do you mean romantic/sexual relations between professors and graduate students in their own departments? (Or between professors and students whom they advise?) Or do you mean *all* relations between faculty members and graduate students, even if these professors and students are from different departments?

    I ask because those could be two very different things, IMO. In the former case, a professor could have real power over a student if/when things go south. But if, say, a Psychology professor dates a History graduate student it’s not clear to me that the former is “preying” on the latter, as s/he doesn’t necessarily have any institutional power over the student. (This is especially true at a larger university like mine, with 4,000 graduate students. It’s unlikely that a Psych prof would end up with supervising a History grad student.)

    I think it can be important to make these distinctions when we’re talking about workplace environments and power.

  20. Shelley on 29 May 2012 at 8:29 am #

    What I learned from having a bullying administrator on my campus was this:

    People are sheep.

  21. Historiann on 29 May 2012 at 9:16 am #

    People are sheep. I think this is true, Shelley, and if I may extend the barnyard metaphors a bit here–if it’s not their ox being gored, they’re not interested in sticking their necks out.

    Frequently this is because they were damaged by the same system and are too beaten down/discouraged to try to assist anyone else or to work for change. This is of course the point of abusive environments–making sure that everyone is equally beaten down and discouraged so that no one will stand against the status quo.

    Lance and John S.: we are both alums of a department in which several proffies shucked their first wives and married students. I think it was a la mode for the men in that department in the late 1970s and 1980s there–and as a matter of fact, two woman (who were just one year ahead of me and one year after me in the program) married male proffies, so it was happening in the 1990s as well. You may know of others from a slightly younger cohort of students. Plus ca change! But this is unsurprising when heterosexuality eroticizes power differences, and when male professors still look on access to younger women as one of the perks of the job.

    I’m not sure that it matters that the hypothetical professor and graduate student in question are from different departments.

  22. Lance on 29 May 2012 at 9:30 am #

    John – There are many cases of all sorts. In some cases, the “new bride” is in the faculty member’s department; in other cases, not. But, to borrow from H-Ann, this doesn’t seem like a distinction that matters to me. Such relations are inherently unequal, and to think that they aren’t is to accept a skewed view of the social landscape that is a part of the problem under discussion here.

    H-Ann – The younger lads here seem just as inclined as their silverback predecessors to ditch the wife (and kids) for an available grad student, but less inclined to marry. Some, with great cheek, offer a critique of marriage as a heterotopic institution along the way, as intellectual cover for their nouvelle relations.

  23. Wini on 29 May 2012 at 9:42 am #

    In my graduate department, there were two couples where the senior, famous female scholars married a younger male former student. One significant variable in both cases was that none of those involved wanted children, which led to other problems in the department culture. (And, of course, the work of the tenured male partners was sometimes dismissed as either ghost written or bad.) It took me while to realize the implications, since I always knew those involved as professors only. It was really only when I developed my relationship with my adviser that I rethought those relationships.

    In the 1990s, the art department at both my current institution and my grad institution lost sexual harrassment suits brought by female students who had close working relationships with studio faculty. Going to the cops with good evidence, and in one case testimony from other victims, was effective in forcing institutional culture. I don’t know what happened here, but my roommate one summer was an art history grad student, and she claimed the faculty member was still on staff despite the large jury award, etc. Here, I don’t even know who it was, but it has been confirmed as more than a campus legend: it is the reason for some extra paperwork we all sign at orientation.

  24. Wini on 29 May 2012 at 9:47 am #

    What is a heterotopic institution, I assume it has nothing to do with foucault and heterotopia. Heteronormative? I swear I am not trying to be pedantic, but the phrase really interested me and relates to a grad student’s work (on space or heterosexuality).

  25. Grad Student on 29 May 2012 at 9:49 am #

    I’m not sure that it matters that the hypothetical professor and graduate student in question are from different departments.

    Such relations are inherently unequal, and to think that they aren’t is to accept a skewed view of the social landscape that is a part of the problem under discussion here.

    Ann and Lance, the implication here seems to be that any relationship between any two people is inherently problematic (and maybe even non-consensual?) if one of them has more social power or authority, even if that power or authority is not in action over the “lesser” partner. In this framework, no one could ever have a healthy or consensual inter-racial or inter-class relationship since there are obvious disparities in social power between racial and economic groups.

    And with these statements, you seem to be conflating the concepts of institutional power and protection with broader-level social power.

  26. Historiann on 29 May 2012 at 9:50 am #

    Lance: cheeky, indeed! I guess it took them a starter wife and family (and alimony & child support payments) to come to that feminist/queer critique of marriage.

    If I were a trailing spouse who had followed someone to *your* university town, I would be SOME PISSED if my marriage dissolved. (It’s a nice enough town, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck there in the wake of a divorce.) I hope the women in question hightailed it out of town with the kiddos, making sure that the dads have a long drive of shame and penance to go fetch the children for his weekends and vacations with them.

  27. Historiann on 29 May 2012 at 9:52 am #

    John S.: why do you keep posting under both this name and “Grad Student?”

  28. Grad Student on 29 May 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Ann, I assure you that I am not John S. Why you would accuse him/me of attempting to commit sock-puppetry is beyond me. Over the time I’ve read your blog, I’ve occasionally felt animosity (some deserved, some maybe not) in response to my commenting contributions. It’s your blog; you’re free to moderate comments and ban users as you see fit, but given the response to many of my ideas presented here, it seems poor form to accuse your colleague and I of being one in the same.

  29. Historiann on 29 May 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Grad Student/John: you chose an on-blog email for “Grad Student” that is provocative (“utensil,” or tool), and you post all of the time from the same IP address. “Grad Student” also seems to show up when John S. disagrees with me in the post or in the comments.

    I don’t have any proof beyond that, but that seems good enough for me.

  30. Historiann on 29 May 2012 at 10:14 am #

    p.s. I should say that both “Grad Student” and John S. have posted from different IP addresses, but when I run a search on each of those addresses in my comments, these two commenters are the only ones who show up under each IP address. That seems to me to be a mighty interesting coincidence, that both commenters show up under the same IP addresses and no other commenters ever do.

    I’ve noticed this for some time now, but I’ve been too polite to point it out until now.

  31. quixote on 29 May 2012 at 10:42 am #

    What Joellecid, Comradde, and Shelley said. Too true. And nothing seems to work. The only reliable way of dealing truth to power seems to be under a cloak of anonymity. Maybe that’s a possible approach. Have a clearing house associated with the courthouse or the like to log genuine, guaranteed anonymity, complaints. They publish the list of accused with more than three complaints against them, so that the naming and shaming can be done properly. And when there are more than say, ten complaints, the accused has to go find a line of work that doesn’t put them in power over people.

    Something like that.

    It’s nice to dream about a solution.

  32. J. Otto Pohl on 29 May 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Umm sock puppet mystery… While the presence of strong women characters, mostly as a result of good women writers, in mysteries has greatly improved in recent decades, historians are still greatly underrepresented. Maybe this could be the start of a cultural change. There have been good psychologists, doctors, lawyers, cops, marine biologists, and other professions represented. So let this be an inspiration to any aspiring novelists. Who is the sock puppet king and what is his agenda? I am sure somebody can do something creative with it.

  33. John S. on 29 May 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    @H-Ann: FWIW, I want to go on the record and state that I’m not posting as “Grad Student,” never have posted as “Grad Student,” and never will post as “Grad Student.” I consider sock-puppetry a breach of etiquette and detrimental to maintaining an online community. I wouldn’t want someone to do it on my blog (if I had one) and I wouldn’t do it on someone else’s blog. So: “Grad Student” is not me.

  34. Feminist Avatar on 29 May 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    I know a male lecturer who *every* *single* *year* dates a new female u/grad student, and fills in the requisite departmental paperwork (which is meant to allow monitoring and resolve conflict of interest issues) to legitimise the relationship. His colleagues wonder that he has the cheek, but nobody in power actually says ‘no’. And, quite a lot of female students have the story of being hit on and feel that it’s, to say the least, ‘problematic’, but he does take rejection seriously, so they don’t feel like they can complain that they’ve personally been ‘harrassed’. But, it does create a culture around that individual, where women watch out for him- and why should they have to?

    And, I know numerous male profs who have swapped their wives for their grad students, with mixed results – so I know one who got kicked out by his grad student several months later, but one who now has three kids with his grad student and does seem ‘loved up’. Still creepy as hell. And these are all relatively recent examples!

    And, I also know of one female lecturer who dated her u/grad student in his final year, but the big difference was that the male student was in his fifties and several years older than the lecturer, who was in her forties, divorced and had children. They had very similar backgrounds (she was also a mature ‘returner’ to education). She also filled in the appropriate paperwork. They are still together several years later.

    And, a lot of us (gossiping feminist colleagues) thought that she should have waited until he graduated on principle, but the other side of this, is that if you’re going to flirt and ‘wait’ for graduation, does it really resolve the inherent issue? And this above example never ‘felt’ as problematic as men with women several years younger – but especially for grad students, who might not be ‘young’, when does it become patronising to control their sexual choices?

    At the same time, as the first examples amply demonstrated, such behaviour does influence departmental/ institutional culture, making it difficult for women who do feel harrassed to do something about it.

  35. Historiann on 29 May 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    FA, it’s not just women who might feel uncomfortable around men who like to date students–what about the other students (of whatever sexes) who can see what’s going on around them, and who may be concerned that all student work and participation in the class isn’t being judged fairly? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable concern, too.

    I have said this before here, and I’ll say it again: physicians can lose their licenses for dating patients. Attorneys can be disbarred for dating clients. Clergy and therapists have robust ethical guidelines that forbid sexual entanglements with the people they’re serving/counseling. The reason academia has no serious code of ethics against dating students is that there is still a substantial minority of men (for the most part) who see this as a major perk of the job. And because most Anglo-American feminists are liberal feminists who quail at (in the words of Feminist Avatar) making rules about students “sexual choices.”

    I am not arguing with FA on this. As a mostly liberal Anglo-American feminist, I too quail at this!

    I will also note that just about every woman I know in academia has either had a crush on a professor or teacher (M or F), or she has had an affair with a professor (M or F, but mostly M), and many of them have married a former professor (exclusively M among the people I know, mostly because gay marriage isn’t legal in most states). This is not surprising–after all, people who are scholars now probably grew up/went to school admiring scholars, and it’s not surprising that that admiration would also be in some cases eroticized. I don’t think of these women as victims–but I also don’t think we can say that the power relations were equal and that there were no other consequences to other students.

    I think this is the kind of eroticized environment that Lance called out as infecting or polluting the atmosphere at his uni, and I think I agree with him that this kind of sexualized atmosphere is something that benefits older men for the most part. Other students who don’t have affairs with these guys are still implicated in their predation. (Predation is probably overly dramatic, but I’m grasping for the right word here.)

  36. Frustrated Full Professor on 29 May 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    As one who married a professor, this conversation makes me feel very divided. Yes, it’s creepy when Professors hit on students. I’ve had colleagues who did this on a regular basis. I’ve also advised students pursuing sexual harassment claims, so I know how difficult universities make this. (And one where I advised the student ended up in the faculty member resigning to avoid being fired, but part of the agreement was that should anyone ask for a reference, the Univ. would say “he had resigned in the course of sexual harassment proceedings”. But that was one tenacious woman, and the other woman who started the complaint at the same time dropped out of it because she couldn’t bear the process.)

    I could say that the structural frame of my marriage (married to a faculty member in my grad program) and its content were not the same, and that would be true. I could note that the focus on the structural obscures the ways in which real people negotiate issues of power in a relationship. But personalizing it that way misses a larger point. Working closely with someone *is* erotic. I’ve experienced this in, for instance, successful team-teaching relationships; or working closely on a committee. We don’t usually act on the erotic energy that can exist in those relationships (as one of my colleagues said to me once, “The thing about being a grown up is you make choices”), but we make a big mistake because we don’t acknowledge it. I wonder if we’d be better off actually acknowledging this dimension of work, rather than suppressing it?

    I came of age long before there was any discussion of sexual relationships between faculty and students. I do think an acknowledgment of the ways the power relations between students and faculty cross cut the erotics of shared work would actually give young women tools to think about the choices that are more effective than “It’s a power relationship so it’s creepy”. That’s not to say “It’s OK” — I didn’t think that was the case, even when I was involved — but it does speak to at least some of the reasons such relationships emerge.

  37. Feminist Avatar on 29 May 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Oh- yes absolutely, the whole issue of how non-harrassed students feel is just as valid; I was just thinking about all the female students who I’ve heard complain about this (mostly after they’ve left the institution!), rather than in an abstract sense!

    I also agree that sexual ‘choice’ is a misnomer; in that, I don’t think that free choices ever really exist (they are always contextually framed) and are made even more limited by inequalities of power, but this is true in innumerable situations. So, I think this does lead to this dilemma where you start to worry about why, in a world where choices are already constrained, we need to constrain them even more!

    Having said that, I also think that your plan would be a good and effective idea, in that such regulations do frame sexual norms. So, for example, age of consent can be largely arbitrary, but for most (if not all) adults, it acts to regulate their desires. So, even if they might quibble with the rules about people just under the age limit, it’s a lot more unusual for people to desire people significantly younger that the age limit, despite the fact that 100 years ago, it was legal to marry as young as 12. Similarly, some academics might find excuses to justify their relationship with a student, but it probably would limit a considerable amount of this behaviour by making it socially unnacceptable for the majority, and limiting the contexts where justification can seem legitimate.

  38. thefrogprincess on 29 May 2012 at 11:41 pm #

    I will also note that just about every woman I know in academia has either had a crush on a professor or teacher (M or F), or she has had an affair with a professor (M or F, but mostly M), and many of them have married a former professor (exclusively M among the people I know, mostly because gay marriage isn’t legal in most states).

    Really???? Just about every woman you know? How is that possible? (I’ve often wondered if this is one of the perks of being black. These dynamics pass me by entirely. Guess who older white men aren’t generally into?)

  39. Historiann on 30 May 2012 at 6:44 am #

    I think if you include crushes, it’s most of the women I know, but not most of the women if you’re talking actual affairs.

    We talked about this here in a cross-posting thingy that Tenured Radical and I did in the summer of 2010 in our review of Terry Castle’s The Professor.

  40. Western Dave on 30 May 2012 at 8:24 am #

    When I was a grad student, I got it the other way. There were always female students who tried to flirt me up in office hours who disappeared after the midterm (since I did blind grading, their apparent flirting for grades was to no avail- even if they were just trying to get brownie points). I was really disturbed by this because apparently it worked on others (the young women who did this were usually upperclasswomen, it didn’t seem to occur to 1st years). At the same time, I once had a student ask to go over the final with me after the course (should have heard warning bells right there), and promptly invited me out. I politely declined. That summer I bought a small ring and wore it as a wedding band when I taught and during office hours. I never got hit on again.

    For me the notion of hitting on students is super-icky. Even when the age difference was relatively small.

    And where I went to grad school, the big scandal was the intra-departmental affair between the trailing spouse (who was a pretty big name in her own right but a notoriously bad person) and one of her new colleagues. They divorced and recruited spouse left sticking us with trailing spouse. Blech. (Note: recruited spouse was once a member of my diss committee and all this happened when I was out of town, so it’s gossip, but I was kinda bitter when I got back to town to start writing up and recruited prof was gone).

  41. Historiann on 30 May 2012 at 9:32 am #

    I wouldn’t say that your story is “the other way.” You just acted like a grownup when confronted with students’ flirtatiousness. (I know this happened all of the time to my male peers in grad school–phone numbers and invitations out in blue books at the back of their exams, etc.–although it never happened to me.)

  42. J. Otto Pohl on 30 May 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Frog Princess:

    We have sexual harassment here in Legon very similar to what exists in the US and almost all our students are Black as are most of our faculty. Some older Black professors sometimes act in the same inappropriate manner towards female students as what is described in the post. The university is now cracking down on it. In large part as a result of pressure from active women faculty. But, sexual harassment is not something by any means unique to White people.

  43. Historiann on 30 May 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Otto–I don’t think FP was suggesting that sexual harassment is a white thing. I think she was suggesting (somewhat playfully?) that one great thing about being a black woman in an overwhelmingly white environment in U.S. higher ed (esp. among the faculty) is some measure of protection against predation by older, white faculty.

  44. thefrogprincess on 30 May 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Yep, Historiann has it right. My comments were very much context-specific: i.e. the US academy. And I was also somewhat saying that in jest, although I do think that the way race, desire, and demographics work in this country (i.e. there are very few black men in academia, and white men are statistically significantly less interested in black women than in white women) does mean that sexual relationships (also including flirting, etc) between black students and white professors are rare, hence my shock at Historiann’s anecdotal evidence.

  45. J. Otto Pohl on 30 May 2012 at 10:44 am #


    It may be that most older White American faculty have no sexual interest in Black women. Although I have no idea how one would determine this. But, this hardly makes young Black women safe from sexual harassment at universities. Primarily, because there are a lot of universities in the world that are not overwhelmingly White even among the faculty. There are a lot more Black people in Africa than there are people total in the US. It would be nice if sexual harassment were not a problem at African universities. But, we haven’t eliminated it yet.

  46. J. Otto Pohl on 30 May 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Oops my post crossed with FP. I don’t think limiting discussion of the problem to US institutions is useful. First, because I have never worked at a US university and have nothing to say. But, also because the problems described also exist elsewhere including at UG.

  47. Tenured Radical on 30 May 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Speaking to Western Dave’s point, I had girls who tried to flirt me up in office hours too (fewer in recent years: funny how age, and the hiring of younger faculty, changes things.)

    I found it flattering, and a little sad, and it is a different scenario from unwanted advances because the student is hoping at least a little to be advanced upon. But I also recall being graphically aware of what a narcissistic a$$hat I would have had to be to understand such flirting as consent for me to take things to the level of sex/romance — or even flirting back.

    But not all my colleagues felt that way. I think for some it was a way to play out feelings of dominance and power that they didn’t have access to among faculty colleagues, and in a way they felt they could not be punished for. For others, women and men, a peculiar haze enveloped them, in which they came to believe that no one else would ever know about this relationship with a student, and it would be a special thing that blended romance with nurturing this students intellectual gifts. Which was, of course, insane. And everyone around them knew, because you can tell when someone’s endorphins are going through the roof when they are with a particular person, but mostly folks didn’t have the ‘nads to say anything. I did say something, twice, and each time time the colleague responded with shame and fear, and then avoided me completely for the time it took for the affair to run its course.

  48. Western Dave on 31 May 2012 at 6:22 am #

    OTOH age has it’s benefits. It’s a heck of a lot less awkward for my students when we do history of sexuality stuff now that I have some grey in my beard. The 10th grade girls in the US survey used to get awkward when he did topics like birth control, changing aesthetics of body types, the rise of the categories “gay” and “straight” etc.

  49. Z on 02 Jun 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    I have seen several tenured harassers removed – with lawyers, though. I prefer to just go off on them, tell them I will beat them up if they come one step further, things along those lines. The one time I was convinced to seek administrative remedy for something more minor, it was a disaster – one I could have predicted, too, because yes it is true, institutions are in the business of protecting themselves.

  50. m Andrea on 03 Jun 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I have never been able to figure out why a corporation or school gets to act as government-authorized law enforcement. Crimes should not handled by corporations or schools — that’s the job for the police.

    What actual legal distinction exists between “I was sexually harassed in the park” and “I was sexually harassed in my teacher’s office”? Colleges are assuming way more authority than they are entitled to — and it’s obvious why — their only purpose is to downgrade actual crimes to mere “impoliteness” which magically deserves no more than a frowny face.

    And, if they’re going to have their own law “enforcement” then they should have their own prison system. Or be required to pay the public courts and jails when the need arises. It’s like they want their cake and eat it too. Tuition money pays for administrative judges with no public oversight, no consistency from school to school, and very little accountability for the criminal; yet the taxes of the student’s parents must still pay for public police protection so they’re paying twice.

    Btw, I want to be a “school” or a “corporation” with this amount of authority, and anybody who suffers a crime in my jurisdiction has to allow me to be judge jury and prison. Seems fair.

  51. m Andrea on 03 Jun 2012 at 11:05 am #

    And why should a sexual assaulter get no criminal record? This reminds me of the Catholic Church…

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