Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

Sexual Misconduct in the Academy

With the emergence of the #MeToo movement, women have felt increasingly empowered to report instances of sexual misconduct. This movement has brought to light a number of sexual harassment cases in academia, where women (particularly at the graduate student and early career levels) have been taken advantage of by their male colleagues and superiors.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released a lengthy report on the issue of sexual harassment in higher education. This report outlines the definition of sexual harassment as:

“…sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, which fall under the category of “come-on” behavior. It also includes the more common but usually dismissed behavior of gender harassment or “put down” behavior, defined by the report as ‘‘a broad range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes.”[1]

The report goes on to synthesize evidence from academic research that illustrates the damaging effects of sexual harassment, both psychologically and physically. Notably, only 25% of women report instances of sexual harassment in their organization [2]. Tying back to our conversations on intersectionality, it is also worth noting that these statistics do not apply equally to all women– women of color are less likely to report sexual harassment compared to white women [2].

Examples from Psychological Science

Some of the most high-profile cases of sexual misconduct in academia have occurred within psychology and cognitive science departments, making this a particularly salient issue for female trainees in these areas.

Recently, Dartmouth College has been under fire for its handling of sexual harassment allegations brought forward by female graduate students in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department. Nine women came forward to report the rape, groping, coercion, and sexual degradation that was perpetuated by three male faculty in the department. The women sued Dartmouth for Title IX violations and recently were awarded a settlement of $14 million from the university [3].

A similar case is ongoing at the University of Rochester in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, where a number of faculty came forward with reports of sexual harassment by fellow faculty member T. Florian Jaeger. The University has been widely criticized for its mishandling of the case, and even resulted in the resignation of the president of the university. The university has actively fought to have the case dismissed, but it continues more than a year after the initial reports were filed. [4]

Moving Forward

How can we better protect female trainees from sexual misconduct by their colleagues and superiors? I don’t have an easy answer, but I hope that these recent examples where harassers are being held accountable for their actions will bring more awareness to the issue and the ways in which the environment of academia might be contributing to these problems.


[2] Cortina, L. M., & Berdahl, J. L. (2008). Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review. In The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Behavior: Volume I – Micro Approaches (pp. 469–497). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.



4 thoughts on “Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

  • Thank you for your blog! The continued release of sexual misconduct cases is extremely disheartening to hear. We have come so far as a society and you would think that humans would stop taking advantage of other humans. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be happening. I find it very interesting a majority of the cases that are deemed high-profile have occurred in the psychology departments at universities. I wonder if this is becuase these students report it more often or if it really does occur more frequently in this disciple? Either way, it needs to stop and cannot be tolerated. I also do not know how to stop the misconduct. We have tried laws, we have tried firing people, and we have tried fines and jail time. I don’t know what more we can do besides pray that boys’ mothers teach them how to treat a woman, but even then, it doesn’t always work like that.

  • Just as a disclaimer, this comment is not meant to be threatening or divisive. If it comes off in this fashion please let me know. In fact, I agree with nearly every point you made in your blog post. The continued abuse of position and power by male faculty members and other powerful male figures is despicable and should end. However, there is a counter point that I often reflect on and would like to hear your opinion on.

    I relate the #MeToo movement as similar, even if not as grandiose, as the civil rights movement and the end of apartheid in South Africa. As in, they are all movements where an traditionally disenfranchised group or groups of people are fighting against the abuse that is brought against them in a systematic and conjoined way. The difference, to me, between the civil rights movement/the end of apartheid and the #MeToo movement is the severity and tone of the movement. For example, at least from what I have learned, the civil rights movement was mostly about hope and change, and was a group of people that didn’t want to punish those that had abused them, but rather simply change the system within which they lived. The #MeToo movement does not feel this way. At times, it feels almost militaristic, where the movement is mainly focused on prosecuting perpetrators rather than solving the real issues presented against women. I think it is hard for these types of movement to affect real change. Of course, they do very well at scaring perpetrators for a while, and during this time it may seem better, however, eventually the perpetrators become no longer scared and things tend to get worse. For example, since the start of the #MeToo movement, many male rapists, sexists and abusers have been prosecuted and convicted and their lives destroyed, and within good reason. However, multiple states have also passed the most strict anti-abortion laws since Roe v. Wade. So, I tend to wonder if a softer, more peaceful approach might be warranted as, historically, those are the movements that affect lasting change.

  • I’ve been reflecting on your response Drew, I wanted to offer some feedback, thoughts, and questions to ponder. Remember our classroom conversation about intention vs. impact. In reading your disclaimer, as the reader it makes me feel initially that I should prepare myself for something threatening or divisive. I recognize the intent is to not do what you state and as the one stating that is providing a disclaimer aiding in creating that preventative outcome. This provides a great opportunity to consider words and the meanings they convey, including universal understandings as they may be applied, but not always received. So what is my suggestion? In stating your opinion, you can choose not to provide a disclaimer, so that the opinion will stand alone because it is your opinion. And consider the impact and response of someone reading it might feel. More importantly, consider the privilege and power in stating a desire for what is said to not be divisive or threatening. Let me give you an example of another statement made that fits within the context of the discussion. I’m not (insert word such as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic), but I feel that (insert statements after). Or to play Devil’s advocate. In both of these examples, the person making the statement is trying to distance themselves from the idea being presented and/or place ownership of an idea on someone else. What I have witness afterward, is a person committing the act of saying something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. they were trying not to see. In addition, the person saying holds a lot of power in the meaning and other perceptions. My takeaway is to consider the power of words, the meaning of words, the point of providing a disclaimer, and ways to take ownership of statements being made.

    While I agree that oppression and a fight for justice exist in #MeToo, Civil Rights, and Apartheid, they are three different movements with different origins and outcomes. Understanding the trauma and pain that exist in one movement can help to understand how trauma and pain show up in the other. However, the movements should not be conflated as being similar. You mention the difference in the movements is severity and tone, which is significant. And there has to be an acknowledgment of how race, gender, and power exist in these movements. For example, Tarana Burke is the founder of the #MeToo movement, yet because of the intersection of all three areas mentioned above, the movement lacked acknowledgment of her contribution and awareness until it became more publicly discussed by White women. And this presents a great opportunity to start with the question WHY? Why don’t we know about Tarana Burke in the same way we know about other actresses and other non-women of color. In this example, tone and severity matter, and so do the intersections of race and gender to the movement, and acknowledgment of whose voice is privileged and who has power. You also mention “course, they do very well at scaring perpetrators for a while, and during this time it may seem better, however, eventually the perpetrators become no longer scared and things tend to get worse”. I’m struck by the first two words “of course” because of it, and along with other aspects of your statement holds many assumptions, which may not exist. Consider a reframing of your statement “perpetrators are scared, of course, because of #MeToo?” I wonder if perpetrators being scared will create a systemic change that addresses the behavior of men, and provide space for all women to feel safe in reporting when violations happen. Lastly, I don’t find much hope and change in the outcome you provide, which is disheartening. So how does privilege show up in the movement, particularly from men? How do you and I as men use our privilege to address the feelings of temporary accountability and an outcome shifting from more violence to great accountability?
    You mention the Civil Rights movement, and I’m stuck on the first part “the civil rights movement was mostly about hope and change”. While was on desire and feeling in the movement, the movement was so much more. Often reflections and conversations about the Civil Rights movements center around boycotts, MLK I Have a Dream Speech, Selma, segregation”, all of which happen and matter, and so much more exist. We know that hope is a feeling, and what people desire to change differ from person to person. I’ve shared in class for example how Brown v. Board of Education is narrated as the “separate but equal case”, and how our history doesn’t recount the impact integration had on the Black economy, community, and educational spaces. I’m struck by the idea around changing systems during the Civil Rights movement, and what that would have looked like from the perspective of Black people and White People differently. I’m curious from your perspective, what types of systematic changes were being advocated for during the Civil Rights movement, how did hope impact the movement, and how was punishment carried out on the oppressed and the oppressor? More importantly, as stated in class that much of history and readings center Whiteness and written by White men, how might this also show up in your knowledge of the Civil Rights movement. In addition, how might the Civil Rights movement bee seen more active than passive, so that narratives and history see the movement as still continuing and not during a fixed period of time?

    You provide some thoughts around many critical issues happening in our world today. I encourage you to consider presenting general issues and present evidence that speak to that issue. For example, #MeToo, Roe vs. Wade, accountability for perpetrators are all major issues that center on the idea of gender violence. I’m intentional in using the word gender to expand the ideas that each of these issues impacts more than those who identify as cisgender. Violence shows up in many instances more severely, when we talk about transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and often gets left out of the conversation.

    I leave you with this final thought. These movements are more than just passive movements with lofty goals, famous speeches, and hashtags. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. I’m curious what your definition of a passive movement is, and can you provide an example of how these movements led to change? Again, consider intent vs. impact. Consider who power and privilege exist in the movements and conversations around sexual violence, and whose voices/stories aren’t being told. Challenge your assumptions and the use of generalizations. As the Dean said last week consider heterogeneity. No one can be a spokesperson for an entire group, and each person can be in the same space but have a different experience. Lastly, consider the “why” in addressing issues of social justice. Why do they exist, why didn’t we learn more about ____, why aren’t we addressing this, and why haven’t I done more to address ______ _?

    I look forward to continuing the discussion and learning from each other.

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