Sociology Dept. Fails Power Relationships?

At U. of Florida, graduate students complain about inappropriate remarks and bullying by professors.
March 19, 2007

A number of graduate students in sociology at the University of Florida have complained that they are being bullied and subjected to inappropriate remarks by some professors.

In November, a team from the university's human resources office conducted interviews with the graduate students. The department chair, Connie Shehan, requested the interviews in response to a student survey that found much unhappiness. Shehan advised all the students to attend the sessions with HR, and out of 61 students, 37 graduate students did so. 

The report from human resources -- recently made public at the university -- quoted students as saying that they were being subjected to comments such as, “As graduate students, you should be doing these three things: research, drinking and screwing” and comments related to the female body, female students’ sensuality and weight, and crude and sexual language. Graduate students also reported being pressured by professors to “not rock the boat."

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, some graduate students said that the problems remain. “Unless people come forth and martyr themselves, nothing can be done,” said one, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her relationship with professors. She said that students constantly say, “I want to get my degree so I won’t say anything.”

She also said that the discrimination was not just coming from the professors, but from students as well. For instance, she said she had witnessed students rolling their eyes when a student of a different ethnicity speaks up in class because they are harder to understand than others in the class.

Robert Heck, another graduate student, said that he witnessed harassment when a professor placed his hand on that of a minority female graduate student and asked if it was true that her group was known to be sensual. “He continued stroking her arm afterwards,” Heck said.

The complaints have all said that the problem goes beyond any one professor, but that it does not extend to all faculty members in the department.

Shehan, the chair, said that the human resources department will be holding a session on sexual harassment and that graduate students and professors will be encouraged to attend. “We are being proactive because it is a serious issue to have students who feel they aren’t accepted in the department,” she said. Shehan also said that the department is reinstituting a formal evaluation for graduate students, involving multiple professors, rather than just relying on the graduate coordinator for updates on student progress.

Not all graduate students share the view of the department's critics. Telisha Martin wrote an opinion piece in The Independent Florida Alligator in which she said she was "very disappointed that the office’s report included none of the positive comments made regarding the student experiences with faculty in the department.” Of her professors, she said, "I can say without reservation that I have only ever found them to be respectful, kind and generous with their time and assistance."


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