Dark Side of a Scholarly Meeting

Tweet about preventing sexual assault of a colleague too drunk to give consent renews discussion of the environment at scholarly meetings.

June 25, 2018
 
Tweet: So I was at an academic conference this weekend and had to physically intervene to prevent a sexual assault by a male colleague on a female colleague who was drunk to the point that she was clearly not in control of herself, and unable to exercise

Academics looking at social media reports about scholarly meetings expect to see tweets about papers presented or job interviews secured. So many were stunned by a tweet over the weekend (above) about an incident at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, in Philadelphia.

The tweet was from Bradley Simpson, an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut. The full thread details how he noticed that a female attendee at the meeting was too drunk to give consent, and how he followed her and a male attendee back to her room.

"I tried to convince my female colleague that she needed to call it a night and that she was in danger when someone was clearly plying her with drinks in the hopes of getting her to have sex with him. I ended up having to follow her and my male colleague back to her room," Simpson tweeted. "All while he pleaded with me to not get in the way because they were both 'consenting adults.' Fuck that. I insisted on staying, she passed out face first on her bed, and I insisted on walking him back to his room, walking around and around as he pretended not to know which was his."

Simpson's intervention, he writes, prevented the man from carrying out his plans. But Simpson writes of his anger that "someone I know was asking my permission to sexually assault someone and thought some code of men would suffice. He considers himself a good lefty." The tweets did not identify either party involved.

Peter Hahn, professor of history at Ohio State University and president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, said via email that the association's leaders were "aware of this matter and are still gathering facts. I am deeply concerned by the allegations. The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations does not tolerate harassment, abuse, discrimination, and other forms of inappropriate behavior at its professional meetings. At its June 21 meeting, the SHAFR Council resolved to establish a code of conduct for its annual conferences, which will be in place before our next annual meeting. SHAFR’s leadership is committed to ensuring that our events are free from abuse and discrimination."

Hahn said that 425 people were registered for last week's meeting.

Simpson's tweets were widely shared, with many academics saying that they pointed to a real danger of sexual harassment and sexual assault at academic meetings. Many praised Simpson, and noted that he set an example for how all academics -- men and women -- can act in ways that prevent sexual assaults from taking place.

The Me Too movement has focused attention in academe on numerous incidents in which some academics (typically men who hold senior posts) have harassed or assaulted others (typically younger female professors or graduate students). In cases where such abuses take place between two employees of a college or an employee and student of the same institution, there are clear places to file a complaint. The situation is more complicated at scholarly meetings, where the harasser and the person being harassed may not share an employer, but where powerful individuals still have considerable ability to influence the career of another. Adding to the dangers, many have noted, is that alcohol flows freely at many such events.

The report this weekend comes at a time when a number of scholarly associations are adopting policies banning sexual harassment or assault at meetings, and outlining procedures to deal with anything that happens.

A panel of the American Historical Association has drafted a new policy that it expects to be in place by the next annual meeting next year. A memo to AHA members said that the new rules "will implement a restated and expanded set of principles and definitions of prohibited behavior at annual meetings and other AHA events. All registrants for AHA-sponsored meetings should be required to indicate that they are aware of these policies as a part of the registration process. Drawing on processes adopted by other professional associations but duplicating none of them exactly, we decided to name an ombuds team consisting of designated members of the [AHA] council and representatives from the AHA’s relevant constituencies to receive complaints about harassment at our meetings.

"Team members’ names and contact information will be publicized, and complainants may choose which individual to contact. That team member would acquaint the complainant with her or his options. If the complaint involves a possible crime, the team member could recommend that the individual report the event to appropriate authorities. In the event the complainant wished to pursue the matter further within the AHA, the ombuds team member would, after further inquiry into the circumstances, turn the information over to the executive director, who would consult the AHA president and general counsel before proceeding. Expulsion from the meeting is a possible sanction for an offender."

In classics, the Women's Classical Caucus issued a statement in November about harassment at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. The statement reminds members of the association that they must abide by the policies of their colleges and universities, and that the society wants to hear about reports of harassment at its meeting. Harassment, the statement says, "is harmful, disrespectful and unprofessional. No attendee should under any circumstance engage in harassment, bullying or intimidation of other attendees either in person or online. By attending the meeting, all participants accept the obligation to uphold the rights of attendees and treat everyone with respect. The SCS does not seek to limit the areas of inquiry of its members or to curtail robust scholarly debate. Its aim is to promote critical and open inquiry that is free of personal harassment, prejudice and aggression."

The American Political Science Association in December released a report on a survey about harassment at its annual meetings. The report found that a "sizable" minority of women and a smaller but still notable share of men have experienced harassment or other inappropriate behavior at an APSA annual meeting.

Most of what the report found consisted of being put down or treated in insulting ways or the use of "inappropriate language."

But 11 percent of women and 3 percent of men reported having experienced "inappropriate sexual advances or touching, such as unwanted attempts to establish a sexual relationship despite efforts to discourage it, being touched by someone in a way that was uncomfortable, or experiencing bribes or threats associated with sexual advances."

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