As is evident from the recent staff shake-up at Virginia Quarterly Review, university quarterlies face a perilous future. They are squeezed by campus-wide cost-benefit analyses on one side and a new wave of popular, innovative independent magazines on the other. Academic literary magazines -- many with staid formats and ossified editorial philosophies -- are struggling to assert their relevance in an era of unprecedented change in publishing technologies. The journey to this point has been long but inexorable. Whether these discouraging trends can be reversed remains to be seen.
University magazines have commonly been placed in a class apart from their quirky, mercurial independent cousins in the century since the emergence of Modernism. The editors of the seminal 1946 study The Little Magazine in America: A History and a Bibliography expressly excluded them from their pages. In the view of the book’s editors, such magazines as The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review and Virginia Quarterly Review were more measured and dignified than the avant-garde magazines of the time, a bit too “conscious of a serious responsibility which does not often permit them the freedom to experiment or to seek out unknown writers.”
In The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, published in 1978, magazine critic Charles Robinson insisted that institutional backing created an unfair competitive advantage, as the academic periodicals could “afford posh formats the independents seldom approach.” In the two decades following World War II, the explosion in university enrollment was paralleled by an explosion in the number of university-sponsored literary magazines. The institutional magazine enjoyed many distinct advantages over the little movement magazines upon which they were modeled, including adequate funding, a faculty editor with a broad literary education, cheap or free labor in the form of undergraduate and graduate students, and the instant prestige of the institution that housed them. The first two decades of the 21st century, however, have seen the rationale of the academic magazine come under question. Some have closed, some have been asked to find additional sources of funding, and others have had their print operations eliminated and moved online. Among the magazines that have been impelled to adapt to changing times are TriQuarterly, New England Review and Shenandoah. And, for the second time in five years, Virginia Quarterly Review finds itself under scrutiny.
In concept, the editor of the university magazine -- without fear of the wolf at the door -- was free to pursue an editorial policy that foregrounded art over commerce. And, taken as a whole, the experiment has been a resounding success. Not only have university magazines regularly published content that falls outside the commercial mainstream, including special issues on world literature and on overlooked authors and movements, they have served as a proving ground for the emerging writers who would go on to populate the pages of Best American Stories and Best American Poetry, as well as the O. Henry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. To use the example of our own former publication, the table of contents of TriQuarterly’s “Under 30 Issue,” published in 1967, includes Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Harrison, Louise Glück and James Tate.
However, there is a moral hazard embedded in the university-supported model: without an incentive to undertake the less glamorous business of chasing subscriptions and single copy sales, such matters are easily neglected. As Jeffrey Lependorf, director of the Council of Little Magazine and Presses, observes in our book The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, “Many university magazines, with venerable publishing histories and many ‘first to publish’ credits to their names, because they received such a high level of support, did little to build their readerships. They may have achieved literary excellence, but very few people ever actually read what they published.”
On the occasion of Northwestern University’s shutting down of the TriQuarterly print operation in 2010, Ted Genoways, then editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote, somewhat dismissively, in Mother Jones: “Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half century ago -- and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance.”
He then advanced the made-over VQR as cure to this malady. Indeed, Genoways and his staff transformed a magazine that had had only 2 editors over the previous 60 years, added a web presence and moved VQR into new areas, most notably journalistic reporting from conflict zones. At the same time, while the new VQR was certainly a publication worth following, the lavish upgrade in content resulted only in a short-lived increase in subscriptions, and, sadly, due to the death of managing editor Kevin Morrissey, and the subsequent blow to the magazine’s reputation, we will never know if VQR could have achieved sustainability under Genoways’s editorship.
Now, with the departure of web editor -- and nationally renowned maven of digital publishing -- Jane Friedman, and the apparent ouster of publishing veteran Ralph Eubanks, VQR is once again in the news for reasons it does not wish to be. Faced with the loss of two professionals with the precise experience that the top magazines are seeking, VQR publisher Jon Parrish Peede insists that VQR will expand its operations, including the addition of science and poetry editors, as well as an increased focus “on online long-form journalism, multimedia and e-books...” and plans to reallocate their operational budget “to achieve these and related goals.” The statement addresses content but not operations in a real sense, unless the budget reallocation can generate a significant increase in subscriptions, sales and advertising to underwrite such growth.
What is to be done? In the end, the path back to prominence for VQR and university literary magazines in general may be lit by the leading independent magazines, which are thriving to a greater extent than perhaps ever before. Guided by editors who have achieved reputations beyond their periodicals, magazines such as McSweeney’s, Tin House, Diagram and n+1 all boast distinctive designs and innovative editorial programs that have attracted broader, younger readerships.
University magazines must make cases for themselves within their institutions and without. Editors must demonstrate to their administrations that they are committed to deploying their funds efficiently. They must make efforts to expand circulation through the use of existing technologies to attract, track and maintain subscriptions. In addition to bottom-line concerns, university magazines should strive to contribute to the cultural identity of their institutions. Beyond the university, the editors of university magazines should seek not to merely publish the best of what is thought and said but also to identify distinct missions and develop editorial philosophies that set them apart.
Certainly there are magazines that embody these qualities. New England Review and Alaska Quarterly Review are two magazines that reflect the cultures of their schools and their regions while maintaining national reputations. Kenyon Review is a venerable name in the pantheon that always keeps up with the times. In the end, university literary quarterlies can no longer reply upon the safety of the ivory tower -- nor should they wish to.
Joanne Diaz is associate professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. She was an assistant editor at TriQuarterly and is the author of two collections of poetry, The Lessons and My Favorite Tyrants.
Ian Morris is the author of the novel When Bad Things Happen to Rich People and is managing editor of the new magazine Punctuate at Columbia College Chicago.
Full-time, non-tenure-track arts and sciences faculty members at Tufts University voted by a two-to-one margin to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced late Thursday. The full-time adjunct bargaining unit is the second SEIU faculty unit on campus, after the part-time adjunct unit that formed in 2013. Part-time adjuncts have since won unprecedented gains in their contract, such as longer-term contracts, pay increases and the right to be interviewed for full-time positions.
“We believed that a union would help us build a real community -- one where all faculty can more effectively contribute to our shared mission of educating students,” Penn Loh, a lecturer in urban and environmental policy and planning, said in a statement. “Coupled with the progress made by our part-time colleagues, today’s victory will no doubt raise the Tufts learning experience to new heights.”
Kimberly Thurler, a Tufts spokeswoman, said via email that the university remained neutral throughout the election process and respected the faculty members' decision. Moving forward, she added, "we hope to work productively with the SEIU as the collective bargaining process begins. It is worth noting that our full-time lecturers already have stable positions, most with multi-year contracts. They have the exact same benefits as our tenure-stream faculty and have received the same average salary increases as tenure-stream faculty." They also play a role in shared governance, she said.
About a third (32 percent) of women professors, administrators and other staff say they lack confidence when it comes to financial planning for retirement, compared to 19 percent of men working in higher education, says a new report from Fidelity Investments. According to a survey of some 700 professionals, about half of whom were professors, more women than men attribute that confidence gap to lack of time for financial planning (45 vs. 33 percent, respectively). Thirty-nine percent of women say they haven't done research about their retirement options, and 34 percent say they don't have enough experience in planning for retirement to feel confident. One-third say they don't know who to talk to in order to get the best advice.
At the same time, women overwhelmingly (94 percent) want to learn more about financial planning. Sixty-three percent prefer to do so by meeting with a financial professional and 44 percent prefer to research planning options online. More than half of women surveyed -- 56 percent -- don't take advantage of employer-provided guidance, but 86 percent of those women who haven't taken advantage of campus resources said they would do so if: their institutions offered classes during work hours or on-site experts to walk through retirement plan options (31 percent); they were entering a "new life stage" (29 percent); or there was more "awareness" of the type of guidance that was being offered (27 percent).
Alexandra Taussig, a senior vice president at Fidelity, said in a statement that she was encouraged that a majority of women academics are eager to learn more about their retirement options. To build on that momentum, she said, "Women should make sure they are fully involved in their finances and take advantage of their workplace guidance, which most higher education employers provide."
Academic life can be insular and claustrophobic, and when I want to escape into a world unlike the one I know too well, I read mainstream journalism about academe.
Gone are the demands of e-mails to settle small administrative issues or to reschedule student conferences, the asbestos abatement in the office next door, the lesson planning, the thrilling moments of seeing students learn. Instead, in journalism about academia, shadowy cabals rule every gesture, and an Orwellian darkness encroaches. Of course, like any enormous incorporation of people with differing goals, academe has its cliques, its pettiness, its paranoia and its very real problems.
Yet journalism has little interest in day-to-day university life or in the complexity of dynamic, systemic problems. Plus, when any aspect of university life appears in the news, a necessary but forgotten asterisk is often absent: colleges and universities can be very different from one another, with seeming trends much more limited than they appear. As an undergraduate, I attended a commuter college with one dorm and one fraternity; as a graduate student, I attended the flagship campus of a Midwestern state university, then an urban campus considered by a surprisingly high number of students as their university of last resort, despite the high quality of education they received. Now I teach at an Ivy League university, with cultural norms both similar to and different from those of my undergraduate and graduate experiences. The most prominent similarity, in my experience, is the expense and challenge of parking.
I recently escaped into the wild fantasy of Jonathan Chait’s essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” in which he attempts to diagnose and critique language-use rules among leftists and liberals. His summary, from a follow-up post: “The story describes a set of social norms and protocols within communities of the left that make meaningful disagreement impossible on issues related to race and gender. I decided to reclaim the widely misused term political correctness rather than invent my own.” Much in his essay is wrong, starting with his understanding of political correctness.
Is Political Correctness Real?
Chait writes that he “reclaims” political correctness, but what he reclaims is unclear. He summarizes the history of P.C. thus: “After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned.” Chait’s capsule history isn’t so much an elision as a fiction. There aren’t any straightforward, uncontested histories of political correctness as a term, used inside and outside academe, nor of it going into “remission.” At any given moment, it has seemed much more like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
In Chait’s essay, political correctness is whatever he needs it to be; he knows it when he sees it. Most often it’s a widespread “academic movement,” organized by “pro-P.C. activists," but elsewhere it “is a style of politics” and even a zombie, having died: “The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement,” he begins one section, “was the 1992 presidential election.” Remarkably, Chait never cites or quotes anyone acting in the name of political correctness, nor does he demarcate the parameters. He writes, “In a short period of time, the P.C. movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular.” Towering presence, psychic space: Chait has hyperbolized what may have begun as an inside joke, transforming it into an internal psychic repression.
Yet for a movement so broad, it’s oddly shadowy. In telling the story of University of Michigan student Omar Mahmood, whose apartment was vandalized after he wrote a satire of offense taking on campus, Chait writes, “Mahmood was widely seen as the perpetrator rather than the victim.” The passive voice gives away the game: Who saw Mahmood as perpetrator, and how does Chait know that view was widespread? Track passive voice and the pronouns that float unmoored from actors, and you may start to see Chait’s essay as conspiracy theory. Chait compounds the sense of conspiracy with an Orwell allusion standard to overheated-but-undercooked op-eds: “The subsequent vandalism of [Mahmood’s] apartment served to confirm his status as thought-criminal.” “Served to confirm” to whom?
When Evidence Isn’t
How does Chait demonstrate the re-emergence of what he sees as thought policing? If we accept his evidence at face value, it seems compelling. But his anecdotes simply don’t demonstrate what he intends them to do. Sift his evidence, and you end up with almost nothing.
For example, look at how he treats the protests against talks by Bill Maher and Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California-Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). ...[O]thers at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam....”
Chait euphemizes how both Maher and Ali have spoken of Islam. Maher doesn’t simply degrade Islam as he does other religions, he explicitly denounces the entirety of the religion as brutal. And context matters: Maher was invited as a commencement speaker; for Muslim students in the audience, the invitation to Maher suggests that critical thinking -- the kind Maher studiously avoids in his comments on Islam -- is unimportant. Ali’s situation was similar; she was being awarded an honorary degree that was rescinded when people drew attention to her 2007 comment that the entirety of Islam should be defeated, as well as her comments that Islam is a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and that there is no moderate Islam. Somehow, “staunch critic” doesn’t do justice to her actual language.
These comments are offensive, but not just to Muslims: they are offensive to anyone who values critical thinking, one of the explicit central values of universities. Had Maher and Ali been invited by groups independent of the university administration, the criticism would have been less notable and vocal. And, as Chait’s essay doesn’t mention, Maher still spoke at commencement with broad support on campus, and Ali was invited to speak at Brandeis.
Chait’s other omissions and elisions reveal how paltry his evidence is. He writes, “Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students.” According to Chait’s summary, the university itself -- presumably represented by higher-ups in the administration -- prevented the performance. But that’s not even remotely true; after long talks with Native American groups on campus, the groups producing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson decided to cancel the show. What happened next, in the parlance of clickbait headlines, will astound you: the groups who canceled the show put together a new show called Does This Offend You?, in which they performed controversial songs from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and other musicals. And they did so with enthusiastic support from the Stanford American Indian Organization, the group that originally brought forward their concerns with the original show. Either Chait omitted the aftermath because it wasn’t convenient to his narrative, or he ignored it. As he’s phrased it, his argument is cherry-picking and misleading.
Elsewhere, he distorts contexts and terminology, treating university debates as cutesy oddities. He writes, “UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I -- one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.’” His summary is both true and fundamentally misleading. Whether you agree or not that the lowercase i was an insult -- for what it’s worth, I do agree -- to treat it outside of its context amounts to a falsehood. At the time of the sit-in, UCLA was dealing with serious charges of systemic denigration of faculty of color; students of color were responding to what they saw as similar mistreatment -- condescension and hostility from students and faculty. And, contra Chait’s claim of repression and silencing, the students were asking to be heard. Acknowledging that complexity, though, runs counter to his thesis.
He doesn’t just minimize context in the sit-in anecdote; Chait has little respect for trigger warnings or the growing concern over microaggressions, mainly because he doesn’t seem to understand them. He introduces trigger warnings by writing, “At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach ‘trigger warnings’ to texts that may upset students.” One of Chait’s readers unfamiliar with academia might assume that trigger warnings are becoming more broadly accepted, but that simply isn’t the case; facing criticism of a broad policy recommending, not requiring, greater use of trigger warnings, Oberlin College tabled the proposal. And many inside and outside academia have brought more attention to trigger warnings not by endorsing them but by debating their usefulness; the official position of the American Association of University Professors, for example, is that trigger warnings are a “threat” to academic freedom. But Chait doesn’t tell his readers that.
Worse still, Chait doesn’t seem to know what trigger warnings are. He writes, “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma -- an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” I don’t use or support trigger warnings, but at least I know what they are. Take, for example, historian Angus Johnston’s trigger warning:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
That warning describes not avoidance, but “controlled exposure.” Also, a search of the Institute of Medicine’s Web site turned up no discussion of or position on trigger warnings in classrooms, and their analyses of how to handle trauma concern clinical standards and settings, not those of the classroom.
Chait’s cursory treatment of microaggressions is similarly inaccurate. (Trigger warning: bad generalization ahead.) He writes, “There is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.” Though there is debate about what microaggressions are and how much impact they have, to call them “small social slights” erases the context. African-American students are still underrepresented at many colleges and universities, and students of color report feeling racially isolated and even misled by university recruiting materials, an isolation exacerbated by microaggressions that highlight it. That isolation isn’t simply the same isolation that all students feel on moving to a new place; some research suggests that microaggressions can impact academic performance negatively.
The diminishing of microaggressions to “small social slights” is deeply ironic, given Chait’s tendency to use hyperbolic cliché; in addition to examples I’ve already noted (the ivory towering presence), his version of political correctness “has bludgeoned” even its supporters. Chait wrote for the student newspaper while at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. In a campus controversy about a display by videographer Carol Jacobsen, Chait “was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit.” The nature of the passive-voice attack is unclear. Did people disagree with the argument? Did they criticize Chait himself? Was his apartment door vandalized as Omar Mahmood’s was? Given the common use of “attack” to describe any verbal disagreement (paging George Lakoff), I’m inclined to assume until further notice, in Chait’s case, that “attacked” is hyperbolic.
Position, Culture and Subculture
I’m familiar with right-wing denunciations of academe, so much so that I tend to ignore them. The weather is the weather. But when a self-described liberal adopts a right-wing critique but treats his as distinct, I take notice. Position matters. “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind,” Chait writes. I quote that here because it’s also true of me: I am white and male, which is worth bearing in mind. Also, I’ve been a student or teacher in universities every year except one since 1996. I mention that because it’s just as meaningful, which is to say meaningless, as one of Chait’s anecdotes:
Indeed, one professor at a prestigious university told me that, just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her students’ sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma -- or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy -- merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration. “This is an environment of fear, believe it or not,” she told me by way of explaining her request for anonymity. It reminds her of the previous outbreak of political correctness -- “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’ "
I don’t want to diminish the anonymous professor’s feelings, but it’s appalling that Chait treats that interview as evidence. I’m also at a prestigious university, though I’m a lecturer unprotected by the tenure track. Maybe I’m attending the wrong meetings and missing out on fearful powwows, but the fear she describes isn’t something I’ve come across.
And it’s not that I’m ideologically or behaviorally pure: I’ve misspoken and said ignorant things and probably will in the future. When called on those things, I’ve rethought my position, and I’ve apologized. In each case, I’ve learned something. Maybe that anonymous professor’s anecdote is entirely accurate in describing how she feels, but it’s also possible that she’s not noticing a new upsurge but is more attentive to an old trend. Ultimately, what she says is nothing more than an unverifiable, context-free anecdote.
Just one counterexample to the culture Chait creates for his readers: in a first-year writing seminar, I taught Denis Johnson’s remarkable novella Train Dreams.Set in the early 20th century, the story begins with a group of white laborers attempting to throw an Asian laborer from a bridge for allegedly stealing from company stores. The third-person narration, which borrows the main character’s diction and syntax, repeatedly refers to the Asian laborer as a “Chinaman.” During in-class discussions, the students used the word “Chinaman” as they spoke. They didn’t recognize it as a slur, nor were they discussing it as a particular use of language. Notably, when I drew attention to their use (too late, I confess, even though Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski echoed in my head: “Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature”), the Chinese-American and international students from China said they hadn’t known it was a slur. I apologized for my slow response, but the students seemed to think it didn’t matter.
I don’t tell that story because I think students are oblivious to language use or that language use isn’t at times angrily contested on campuses; obviously, language use is often contested. But to describe arguments about language use as a movement that’s created an overwhelming culture of fear falls apart when you examine the evidence and Chait’s approach against context.
Back to positionality: we should always be mindful of that. My position -- as a white male, as a lecturer, as a colleague -- matters, not because the university is the bastion of a movement of political correctness, but because all cultures and subcultures have social norms and restrictions on speech and ideas, norms and restrictions that often vary depending on race and gender, as well as one’s position within a given institution. Plus, institutions have histories we have to attend to and, in some cases, rectify. Every publication Chait has ever worked for, every organization he’s ever been part of, formal or informal, has restricted acceptable discourse; over time, those restrictions have changed. What Chait sees as an “outbreak” of political correctness (P.C. was, earlier, in “remission,” so there’s that illness metaphor again; paging Susan Sontag) is actually one among many long, ongoing debates about how we can and should use language. Some of these debates occur inside the university; but they also occur well beyond the university, and daily, and always have.
Ultimately, Chait’s distorted portrait of the university isn’t meaningless or separate from his depiction of liberalism and the left; it’s important to his distortion of American history, one that’s widespread. To close his essay, he writes, “The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.” In his invocation of glory and “the ultimate power of reason,” the prose purples. To be honest, I wish I agreed that reason triumphed. But if Chait thinks the historical record of liberalism is one in which reason stands champion, I’d advise him to do some reading. Maybe he should return to school.
Charles Green teaches writing as a lecturer at Cornell University.
A Canadian instructor under fire for teaching anti-vaccine views that clash with science has asked for and been granted a leave from the health class she was teaching, The Globe and Mail reported. Queen's University, in Ontario, has faced intense scrutiny and criticism over the teachings of Melody Torcolacci, who has declined to respond to questions from the press. Students have shared PowerPoints and class notes indicating that they were being taught to doubt that vaccines are effective. Students have complained in the past, but the issue has received increased attention amid the current measles outbreak in the United States. The university has said that it is investigating the matter.
Amid all the attention to the issue at Queen's, Richard Reznick, dean of health sciences, published a blog post in which he described how medical, nursing and other health students are taught that vaccines are safe and effective, and that they are valuable in promoting health.
When Inside Higher Ed’s Carl Straumsheim broke details of the Walter Lewin affair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he moved institutions into unprecedented territory in the battle to cope with sexual misconduct on campus. But his article accomplished more than that -- it also serves as a reminder that after decades of vacillating institutional, public and media interest in sexual abuse by collegians, solutions to the equally disturbing and more complex problem of professorial misconduct still elude institutions.
The increase in student demonstrations over assault is not surprising. As much as we would like to believe the campus environment has undergone substantial change since the 1970s, sexual harassment and violence have remained serious challenges, and student anger over mishandling of complaints should come as no shock.
A new generation has had enough of institutional indifference and manipulation and, like characters in the classic film Network, they have decided to send a message: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
But dealing with the power imbalance inherent in student-professor sexual experiences can be even more challenging, as the Inside Higher Ed article demonstrates in depicting the struggle and courage students need to cope before moving on to closure.
Straumsheim recounts the story of Faïza Harbi, 32-year-old MOOC student, who exposed online sexual misconduct by internationally renowned MIT physics professor Lewin. After a year of investigation and corroboration of Harbi’s charges by several other women, the university severed relations with Lewin, revoked his emeritus status and removed his courses from OpenCourseWare. (He never responded to Inside Higher Ed's questions about the case.)
Nevertheless, its announcement of severe reprimands for the already retired 79-year-old have to date been accompanied by only the vaguest details of Lewin’s offensive behaviors. An explanation for that silence and details of further investigation into Lewin’s past behavior may be yet to come, but it was Harbi, a former sex abuse victim, who agreed to reveal them when she reached out to Inside Higher Ed.
Like witnesses whose identities she protected, Harbi told of being manipulated into sexual role-playing, providing Lewin with naked pictures and videos, and his use of sexually explicit language. Reminded of previous abuse, she said she began self-mutilating until a psychiatrist encouraged her to come forward. She said she did so out of fear the case would be forgotten.
Unfortunately, despite the new legal ground and institutional challenge it may -- and should open -- Harbi might be right. History is abundant with stories of sexual harassment and abuse that more often than not never reach the public arena, and the extraordinary few that do are usually forgotten.
There is, for example, the century-old case of William Slocum, president of Colorado College in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I first learned about the clergyman turned academic a few years ago when The Great Plains Quarterly asked me to review an article by Converse College’s historian, Joe P. Dunn.
“Scandal on the Plains: William F. Slocum, Edward S. Parsons, and the Colorado College Controversies” recounts the powerful Slocum’s career, which, among other feats, included saving Colorado College from extinction. It describes in depth his harassment of numerous women during his long reign at the institution; one described, in the Victorian terminology of the time, being pressed against a wall and having Slocum “emphasize the pressure at the portion of his body and mine most calculated to arouse and satisfy physical passion.”
Trustees had successfully contained rumors of other alleged presidential misconduct until the harassment case became public and two of victims refused to recant their stories. Even so, Slocum retired quietly, while Edward Parsons, the dean who led the charge against the president, was subsequently forced out for what Dunn described as his “unpardonable sin in the board’s eyes (which) was that he had aired the institution’s dirty laundry in public.”
Parsons rescued his career and went on to become president of Marietta College but has long been forgotten by history. Slocum, on the other hand, is, with little to no mention of his offensive past, extolled as a pioneer in American education history.
Whether Walter Lewin’s intellectual and pedagogical brilliance will grant him a similar rescue from disgrace remains to be seen. But MIT’s legal vulnerability and the nationwide response to professorial misconduct on technology have become serious issues.
To its credit, the university did take a rare but courageous step when it conducted its 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault survey of 10,831 of its students. The 35 percent response rate was not overwhelming since only a portion of the student body was sampled and the majority of replies replicated national statistics. Nevertheless, it was an attempt at examining a reality most institutions choose to avoid. But the focus was on student harassment by other students -- not by faculty members like Lewin.
There’s no doubt that the public is now hearing much more than before about students who are sexually assaulted by fellow students. But when professors are accused, not so much.
The reasons are numerous. College educators enjoy enormous independence and freedom. Unlike schoolteachers, they have little to no supervision and multiple means of access to students. Most work in environments where personal eccentricity is tolerated and where too much interest in colleagues’ behaviors is regarded as inappropriate.
Insofar as institutions themselves are concerned, the unstated and perhaps unconscious view at many is that ignoring the issue is preferable to any action that might create discord and resistance from faculty members or students. As long as a proper cookie-cutter policy and some form of faux training exit, the safest course is to hope for the best and wait to respond until the worst occurs.
The problem is the worst is eventually bound to occur in one form or another. It happened at the University of Idaho after Katy Benoit broke off dating psychology professor Ernesto Bustamante, who shot her eleven times and then committed suicide. The university's then-president Duane Nellis, told reporters the institution had responded “immediately and decisively to protect Katy and to remove Bustamante.”
Perhaps not immediately enough, since records show Benoit had filed a complaint against Bustamante earlier and others had previously objected to his “erratic” classroom behavior and talk of shooting students. In an anonymous hotline call, one alleged he had coerced students into having sex orgies.
Benoit’s family eventually won an undisclosed settlement from the university. (For some reason, the amounts of institutional settlements are often or usually unrevealed.) Nevertheless, according to Nellis, the university suffered irrevocably as a result of her death. In a statement that was undoubtedly little consolation to her family, he said, "Since Katy's death, every person associated with the university has grappled with this tragedy. We're not over it. We'll never be over it.”
In the shadowy world of possible employee misconduct, online training courses are popular methods institutions use to defend themselves against charges they failed to comply with federal law requiring education about the problem. They work as public relations strategies and are preferable to training done by human beings, because they are easy to schedule and eliminate undesirable discussion and debate. People can’t argue with computers, so harmony persists on campus.
In addition to ignoring problems until they become too serious to dismiss, another explanation for silence about professorial misconduct is the assumption that it’s easier to assume “kids will be kids,” and that trying to determine whether a drunken student actually said no to her equally inebriated partner is less difficult than risking a lawsuit by a guilty but contentious and gifted or popular professor.
For some, sexual misconduct might even seem the result of students’ own demands: they asked for the right to be treated like adults, for the demise of in loco parentis -- they have what they wanted, let them live with the outcomes. (Unless, of course, the student really did say no and is destined to live with the aftermath for the rest of her life.)
Clearly there are those like Harbi, Benoit and Ziegler who “consent” to behaviors and relationships that are seemingly inexplicable. Undoubtedly, the power discrepancy between professors and students is the basis for their decisions. But consent never occurs in a vacuum. Beyond the power dynamic, there are a million reasons we can never know what drives people to entangle themselves in hazardous circumstances.
One tactic institutions may use to silence students who complain about so-called “consenting” relationships is to convince them they are adults who made choices for themselves. Paul R. Abramson argues in Romance in the Ivory Tower that choice is inherent in amorous relations and professors have a Constitutional right to sex with students. This approach attempts to turns the power disparity argument on its head. Instead of the professor misusing his power to threaten or manipulate the student, she becomes the agent of control.
The only difficulty is that while academe promotes itself as a bastion of knowledge, it cannot place students in control of “consenting” relationships without disregarding evidence emanating from its own laboratories. A wealth of research has by now long demonstrated that postadolescent poor decision making and risk taking occur because the adult brain is not fully formed until at least the midtwenties. The professor is the adult. The student is not.
When the “student consented” defense doesn’t work, some institutions defend their silence on professorial misbehavior behavior by assuming that the emotions of the young are malleable, that a 19-year-old will forget being used and eventually discarded by an authority figure. Considering the high rates of depression and attempted suicides among young women, that can be a perilous assumption. And the reality is that few, if any, targets -- male or female -- ever forget.
In her New York Magazine article “The Silent Treatment,” Naomi Wolf writes of her encounter with famed professor Harold Bloom, “Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothing -- because the teacher was valuable to them -- they had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because I -- and other young women who could be expected to remain silent -- would never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth."
Like Harbi, she discovered that "keeping bad secrets hurts.... I have obviously survived. This is the argument often made against accusers in sexual-harassment cases: Look, no big deal, you’re fine. My career was fine; my soul was not fine.... Not one of the women [who have contacted me] had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence.”
Wolf also exposed one of best-kept institutional secrets in dealing with harassing or predatory professors. If faculty members are “valuable,” colleges and universities find ways to placate or discourage complainants so that reality becomes rumor and is forgotten over time, especially since students are merely transient residents on campus.
Findings of Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault (2014), an ongoing research project by University of Illinois Professor Kate Clancy and colleagues, did, however, offer valuable new information. Surveying 142 men and 516 women, researchers found that 64 percent of respondents reported having been sexually harassed and more than 20 percent described being victims of sexual assault when participating in scientific fieldwork.
But this research was unique in that not only was it the first to assess the experiences of trainees in science fieldwork but that it found the vast majority of harassers and predators were “researchers who were superior to [trainees] in rank -- either more-established scientists working on the same sites, or leaders of the research.”
This is the type of information most colleges haven't sought out. The impact it could have on decision making by administrators and perpetrators is substantial, but for female students who are the primary targets of the unwanted behaviors, it serves as a mechanism to discourage their pursuing careers in the sciences.
When all is said and done, though, the fundamental motivation for institutional secrecy over sexual misconduct is probably not prejudice against women. It is, rather, fear. Beneath the indecision and inertia lie two fundamental concerns: anxiety about “having dirty laundry aired in public” and about loss of funding when scandal occurs.
Colleges and universities find themselves in unenviable positions when there is not clear and convincing evidence of sexual misconduct by employees. They then bear responsibility for protecting the rights of both student complainants and accused faculty members, as well as for guarding their own ivory tower images and economic well-being.
But while these are understandable concerns, they do not supersede higher education’s moral and legal responsibilities to students. Arguments over the efficacy of Yes Means Yes policies and the fairness of the federal government’s preponderance of evidence standard may never be totally resolved, but one reality is obvious: too many institutions do not take sexual misconduct by employee perpetrators seriously.
To their credit, many colleges and universities have chosen to say “enough” and to confront the complexities of dealing with sexual misconduct by employees. For instance, once considered impossible to enforce, prohibition policies on amorous relationships between faculty and students are increasing on campuses across the country.
But now the Walter Lewin/MOOC affair has added a layer of complexity to the challenge of professorial misconduct. In the race to extend educational opportunities and/or increase income, colleges and universities have been left totally unprepared for the professional and legal challenges that lie ahead.
One thing is certain. In cases like Lewin’s, silence will not so easily work. The evidence will always be accessible, and there will always be some enterprising reporter willing to take the story farther than institutions’ obligatory statements of regret.
And maybe, just maybe, the profession will recognize that Naomi Wolf was telling the truth when she wrote that her “soul was not fine” after a brief encounter with a lecherous professor and that, of the women who contacted her in response to her story, “not one... had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence.”