Sexual Harassment? We Are Anything But Immune

While some may say my post on sexual harassment in academia comes at an opportune moment, I would hope we can all agree that we must be having more discussions on how to deal with this deeply embedded cultural issue—one of which universities are by no means free—and we must be having these talks now.

Pam Belluck’s report, “How Universities Deal With Sexual Harassment Needs Sweeping Change,” details a new 2018 report—a 311-page document, two years in the making, by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (independent agencies that advise the government and public)—which details the need for universities to be making changes in their approaches to combatting sexual harassment in academia. In fact, according to the aforementioned national advisory panel, “there is no evidence to suggest that current policies, procedures, and approaches have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment.”

While I’m not surprised to read the findings of this report (findings which include the report that academic workplaces are second only to the military in the rate of sexual harassment, as well as that 58 percent of employees in academic environments have indicated they’ve had experiences of sexual harassment), I’m especially startled to find that this report is the national academies’ first report addressing sexual harassment.

In other words, it’s taken up until 2018 to ever. publish. a single. report. on. sexual. mis.con.duct.

How!?

In the cited survey of the University of Texas system, for example, 20 percent of female science students, more than 25 percent of female engineering students, and more than 40 percent of female medical students reported experiences of sexual harassment from faculty or staff members. And that’s only the women who report. And that’s only in a single study. And that’s only within the public universities within only a single state. And that’s nothing new.

Of the recommendations offered, the panel urged institutions to overhaul their academic advising systems “so students and junior researchers are not dependent on one senior researcher for advancement and access to grants,” as well as urged legislators to pass laws to allow people to file harassment lawsuits directly against faculty, rather than just the universities. Stating that universities have been “too focused on symbolic compliance with current law and avoiding liability and not on preventing sexual harassment,” the panel reasoned that the fear of liability has kept many institutions from evaluating their prevention system; and, if universities did, “they would likely find them to be ineffective.” Title IX doesn’t work, as it assumes women will file complaints; of course, though, merit-based harassment discourages women from doing so, as they fear filing complaints would limit their career progress. Not to mention, experiences, the panel found, can prove even worse for women of color, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender women.

Of course, fields of focus outside of science, engineering and medicine are not immune to these problems. Nick Anderson’s article, “Academia’s #MeToo Moment: Women Accuse Professors of Sexual Misconduct” points to recent incidents of females’ reports of abuse of trust outside of the relationship in the college classroom by men in positions of power and privilege, including a former University of Virginia student who, this past year, accused her former creative writing professor, John Casey—a UVA faculty member since 1972 and winner of a National Book Award—for repeated incidents of abuse of power, including repeated incidents of sexual harassment that occurred back in 2001.

With hopes, movements such as the #MeToo movement that are encouraging more dialogue surrounding issues of sexual harassment will not only also spark discussions on university campuses, but, more importantly, will incite real change that will be making real changes for the better. Just between December of 2017 and his article, published in May 2018, Anderson reports that more than 2,400 anonymous accounts of sexual misconduct have been posted online through a spreadsheet open for victims and witnesses to describe incidents that have occurred within academic environments.

Our universities reflect our culture; clearly we have some work to do.