Until recently, the interests of graduate students have largely been ignored by university “family friendly” initiatives designed to meet the needs of women on the tenure track who aspire to be mothers as well as scholars. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Stanford University announced its new Childbirth Policy for women graduate students with fanfare, nor that it was positively received by the national news media. What’s puzzling is how little attention has been paid to the huge gap between Stanford’s aspiration and its accomplishment.
The rationale for the policy is exemplary: “Stanford University is committed to achieving a diverse graduate student body, and facilitating the participation of under-represented groups in all areas of research and graduate and postdoctoral training. To increase the number of women pursuing … advanced degrees … it is important to acknowledge that a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.”
Unfortunately, the policy itself -- which provides accommodation in the form of paid leave, extension of deadlines and reduced workload to graduate students “anticipating or experiencing a birth” -- sends an entirely different message.
While the phrase “anticipating or experiencing a birth” seems expansive enough to cover “anticipating” the birth of an adoptive child, that is not Stanford’s intention. Associate Dean for Graduate Policy Gail Mahood was brutally frank on this point: “The policy does not apply to women who adopt children.… Women can always put off adopting,” she told a reporter.
Apparently Stanford prefers grad students who create families “the old fashioned way,” leaving others to sink or swim without institutional support. So much for the message of inclusiveness and diversity! In creating this restrictive policy, Stanford seems to have lost sight of its original goal, confused means and ends, and conflated biology (childbirth) with social issues (family formation).
Ordinarily, women become pregnant as a means to start a family, not to “experience childbirth.” Other ways to accomplish this goal are adoption, surrogacy and becoming a foster parent. Absent some as-yet-undisclosed study linking female fertility to academic talent, it seems odd that Stanford would decide that only fertile women able to carry a fetus to term deserve institutional support for their decision to start a family during graduate school.
The privileging of birth mothers over adoptive mothers is as illogical as it is offensive to families who have struggled with infertility prior to adopting. Under the literal terms of this policy, whose avowed purpose is “to make sure that we retain in the academic pipeline women graduate students who become pregnant and give birth,” a graduate student who gives her child up for adoption immediately after birth could request accommodation, while the adoptive mother who cares for that newborn could not.
Equally, if not more disturbing, is the policy’s failure to support graduate student couples who want to share the task of balancing work and family, thereby promoting a traditional heterosexual family structure that has proved detrimental to women’s achievement. Recognizing that “[t]aking care of an infant is time-consuming and sleep-depriving so advisors need to have realistic expectations about rates of progress on research,” the policy denies the same compassionate recognition to other graduate student caregivers who might be equally in need of help -- e.g., biological fathers, gay couples, adoptive parents or biological mothers who used a surrogate to carry the fetus to term.
Thus, the only graduate student families who will benefit from the childbirth accommodation policy are those who choose to conform to the traditional gender role model of mom stays home to bond with baby while dad goes to work. This patterning of gender stereotyped roles is unlikely to prove advantageous to the woman’s future career.
One would have expected Stanford’s policymakers to heed the counsel of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist (a Stanford alumnus) on the importance of gender-neutral family leave benefits, in a 2003 case:
“Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied them similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.”
Finally, by excluding everyone but the birth mom from accommodation, the policy may even override the woman’s own preference in the matter: Stanford seems not to have envisioned the possibility that the birth parents might both be graduate students, and that a new mother-scientist at a critical research juncture might choose to return to her lab right away, if only the policy were flexible enough to accommodate her partner’s desire to stay home and tend to the newborn.
Stanford deserves some credit for being the second nationally prominent graduate school to attempt any accommodation for grad students who become parents. (MIT was the first.) But the progressive impulse that spawned this “breakthrough” has been undermined by using “childbirth accommodation” as a proxy for easing the burden on new mothers. If the goal is truly to achieve diversity by increasing the number of women pursuing advanced degrees, surely a Class I research institution can craft a policy more likely to fulfill its intended purpose -- one not limited to the “June Cleavers” in its grad student population, but generous enough to encompass 21st century parenthood in all its diversity.
Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco lawyer known for her expertise in the areas of academic discrimination and gender stereotyping. She is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.
In response to the scandal surrounding the men's lacrosse team, Duke president Richard Brodhead has initiated a "conversation on campus culture." The first installment provided little insight. To Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies, recent events showed that "we need an innovative and brave curriculum that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner." It's worth remembering that only two years ago at Neal's institution, a department chairman jokingly explained the faculty's ideological imbalance by noting, "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire." It seems rather unlikely that Duke's curriculum lacks a sufficiently "progressive" nature.
Indeed, far from needing a more "progressive" campus culture, the lacrosse scandal suggests that a considerable portion of the Duke faculty and student body need to reread the Constitution and consider the accused -- regardless of their group identity -- innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, if, as Duke officials have claimed, Brodhead seriously desires to use this event as a "learning opportunity," he needs to explore why voices among the faculty urging local authorities to respect the due process rights of Duke's students seemed so overpowered by professors exhibiting a rush to judgment.
In early April, prior to his peculiar commentary on campus culture, Professor Neal joined 87 other Duke professors in signing a public statement about the scandal. Three academic departments and 13 of the university'ss academic programs also endorsed the statement, which was placed as an advertisement in the student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, and is currently hosted on the Web site of Duke's African and African-American Studies program. That 88 faculty members -- much less entire departments -- would have signed on to such a document suggests that whatever plagues Duke's campus culture goes beyond the lacrosse team's conduct and the administration's insufficient oversight of its athletic department.
Few would deny that several players on Duke's lacrosse team have behaved repulsively. Two team captains hired exotic dancers, supplied alcohol to underage team members, and concluded a public argument with one of the dancers with racial epithets. In response, Brodhead appropriately cancelled the team's season and demanded the coach's resignation. Yet the faculty members' statement ignored Brodhead's actions, and instead contributed to the feeding frenzy in the weeks before the district attorney's decision to indict two players on the team.
The 88 signatories affirmed that they were "listening" to a select group of students troubled by sexism and racism at Duke. Yet 8 of the 11 quotes supplied from students to whom these professors had been talking, 8 contained no attribution -- of any sort, even to the extent of claiming to come from anonymous Duke students. Nonetheless, according to the faculty members, "The disaster didn't begin on March 13th and won't end with what the police say or the court decides." It's hard to imagine that college professors could openly dismiss how the ultimate legal judgment would shape this case's legacy. Such sentiments perhaps explain why no member of the Duke Law School faculty signed the letter.
More disturbingly, the group of 88 committed themselves to "turning up the volume." They told campus protesters, "Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard." These demonstrators needed no encouragement: They were already vocal, and had already judged the lacrosse players were guilty. One student group produced a "wanted" poster containing photographs of 43 of the 46 white lacrosse players. At an event outside a house rented by several lacrosse team members, organized by a visiting instructor in English Department, protesters held signs reading, "It's Sunday morning, time to confess." They demanded that the university force the players to testify or dismiss them from school.
The public silence of most Duke professors allowed the group of 88 to become, in essence, the voice of the faculty. In a local climate that has featured an appointed district attorney whose behavior, at the very least, has been erratic, the Duke faculty might have forcefully advocated respecting the due process rights of all concerned. After all, fair play and procedural integrity are supposed to be cardinal principles of the academy. In no way would such a position have endorsed the players' claim to innocence: Due process exists because the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition has determined it elemental to achieving the truth. But such process-based arguments have remained in short supply from the Duke faculty. Instead, the group of 88 celebrated "turning up the volume" and proclaimed that legal findings would not deter their campaign for justice.
When faced with outside criticism -- about, for example, a professor who has plagiarized or engaged in some other form of professional misconduct, or in recent high-profile controversies like those involving Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado -- academics regularly condemn pressure for quick resolutions and celebrate their respect for addressing matters through time-tested procedures. Such an approach, as we have frequently heard since the 9/11 attacks, is essential to prevent a revival of McCarthyism on college campuses.
Yet for unapologetically urging expulsion on the basis of group membership and unproven allegations, few professors have more clearly demonstrated a McCarthyite spirit better than another signatory to of the faculty statement, Houston Baker, a professor of English and Afro-American Studies. Lamenting the "college and university blind-eying of male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain," Baker issued a public letter denouncing the "abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us." To act against "violent, white, male, athletic privilege," he urged the "immediate dismissals" of "the team itself and its players."
Duke Provost Peter Lange correctly termed Baker's diatribe "a form of prejudice," the "act of prejudgment: to presume that one knows something 'must' have been done by or done to someone because of his or her race, religion or other characteristic." It's hard to escape the conclusion that, for Baker and many others who signed the faculty statement, the race, class, and gender of the men's lacrosse team produced a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality.
Baker's attacks on athletics added a fourth component to the traditional race/class/gender trinity. It's an open secret that at many academically prestigious schools, some faculty factions desire diminishing or eliminating intercollegiate athletics, usually by claiming that athletes are lazy students, receive special treatment, or drive down the institution's intellectual quality. In fact, with the exception of the two revenue-producing sports (men's basketball and football), the reverse is more often true at colleges like Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, or the Ivy League institutions.
I admit to a bias on this score: My sister was a three-year starter at point guard for the Columbia University women's basketball team. Seeing how hard she worked to remain a dean's list student and fulfill her athletic responsibilities gave me a first-hand respect for the challenges facing varsity athletes at academically rigorous institutions. In addition to the responsibilities sustained by most students (challenging course loads, extracurricular activities, often campus jobs), athletes in non-revenue producing sports have physically demanding practice schedules, in-season road trips, and commitments to spend time with alumni or recruits. They play before small crowds, and envision no professional careers. It's distressing to see that many in the academy share Baker's prejudices, and view participation in college athletics as a negative.
With the most vocal elements among Duke's faculty using the lacrosse case to forward preconceived ideological and pedagogical agendas, it has been left to undergraduates to question some of the district attorney's unusual actions -- such as conducting a photo lineup that included only players on the team, sending police to a Duke dormitory in an attempt to interrogate the players outside the presence of their lawyers, and securing indictments before searching the players' dorm rooms, receiving results of a second DNA test, or investigating which players had documented alibis. In the words of a recent Newsweekarticle, the lawyer for one indicted player, Reade Seligmann, produced multiple sources of "evidence that would seem to indicate it was virtually impossible that Seligmann committed the crime." To date, the 88 faculty members who claimed to be "listening" to Duke students have given no indication of listening to those undergraduates concerned about the local authorities' unusual interpretation of the spirit of due process. Nor, apparently, do the faculty signatories seem to hear what The Duke Chronicleeditorial termed the "several thousand others of us" students who disagreed that "Duke breeds cultures of hate, racism, sexism and other forms of backward thinking."
The Raleigh News and Observer recently editorialized, "Duke faculty members, many of them from the '60s and '70s generations that pushed college administrators to ease their controlling ways, now are urging the university to require greater social as well as scholastic discipline from students. Duke professors, in fact, are offering to help draft new behavior codes for the school. With years of experience and academic success to their credit, faculty members ought to be listened to." If the group of 88's statement is any guide, this advice is dubious. Even so, Brodhead has named two signatories of the faculty group to the newly formed "campus culture" committee. Given their own record, it seems unlikely that their committee will explore why Duke's campus culture featured its most outspoken faculty faction rushing to judgment rather than seeking to uphold the due process rights of their own institution's students.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.
"I can never lay eyes on the boy without wanting to give his face a good going-over with a hot flannel." So speaks the voice of sexual repression in the person of Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoe Heller's novel, Notes on a Scandal. (Judi Dench plays the role with such authority in the movie she was nominated for an Academy Award.)
Not so Barbara's fellow teacher, subsequent friend, and finally tragic victim, Sheba Hart. (These symbolic names!) Sheba finds the same 15 year-old boy alluringly fresh and clean. She proceeds to have sex with him.
As readers, we ally ourselves most uncomfortably with Barbara, sublimely unaware of her existence as a sexual being. Which is worse for a teacher, the novel asks: to hate students or to desire them? As adult readers in higher education, does the question get more comfortable for us since the students are older, and therefore have more agency? (Such agency is usually the case in academic novels, ranging from J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.) Or does Heller's narrative pose the question of sex with students -- any students -- so bluntly that our official mandates against it seem evasive, joyless, and disingenuous?
Interestingly, Barbara will have none of "any sentimental notion about the innocence of everyone under the arbitrarily age bar of 16 years." Although she has no quarrel with the law, she maintains that students who become involved with their teachers "possess some instinct, some natural talent for sexual power play," and in this case she supposes that the boy actually wielded more power than his teacher. Usually such wisdom is dramatized rather than argued in academic novels where students and teachers have sex. Notes on a Scandal sits rather oddly alongside these novels, because simply the fact that it is set in a secondary school makes a college setting appear more adult.
Furthermore, the student-teacher sex in a college setting appears more, if not consensual, at least less in need of "sentimental notions," either about the innocence of students or the mysteries of sex. Sheba herself is married to a former professor. "But you were 20!" he exclaims, after she attempts to ally the affair the two of them once had with the one she has been having now. No further argument. Compared to 15, 20 seems a lot older. Notes on a Scandal makes us realize that the narratives of academic novels where the "innocent" is 20 are strangely implicated in quite other narratives where the same student is in fact 15, or younger.
Have the explicit sexual harassment rules and sexual conduct codes of recent years in higher education come about at least in part because of their incomparably less elaboration in secondary education? Probably not. And yet, in fictional terms, we know far less about what is going on between students and teachers in high school than we do between them in college. Heller's narrative is cleverly situated, looking down to a period of life when students are presumed to be "innocent" and when sex by an adult with them is a criminal offense, while at the same time glancing up to the next period of life when students are not so innocent and when, legally, they are adults.
Why in the first place is Sheba married to her former professor? So that Heller can include a bit of mockery derived from the behavior of his friends, most of whom, according to Barbara, are "academic types ... all terrified at the thought of being 'cheesy' or insensitive.... Even if they told you that your dress was nice, they put it in quotation marks in case you took offense and slapped their aces." We poor academics! We have been so careful during the past decade or two not to get our faces slapped! (We males, that is. Barbara speculates on how different the public reception of Sheba's affair would have been had she been a man and the boy a girl. "In the end, I suspect, being female will do nothing for Sheba, except deny her the grandeur of genuine villainy.") Result: our sexuality -- at least on the evidence of fiction -- gets displaced onto students, where in the end we only get variously slapped anew.
Notes on a Scandal is set in an England no different in its sexual mores or gender dispensations than the United States. How different in other countries! I chanced to read the novel while teaching in Spain. One day a young Spanish colleague wore a particularly attractive dress. "Maybe I can say that's a nice dress,"? I hazarded. "But you know that if you were an American woman I'd be afraid you might accuse me of sexual harassment." She laughed. "You don't have to worry about that here. Have you ever heard of piropeando?" I hadn't. It seems the male practice of "throwing compliments" extends from mild remarks on dress to more emphatic catcalls. To this woman, and to many Spanish women to this day, the practice is not pejorative.
Back home, we are only allowed quotation marks. And so it's no surprise that Notes on a Scandal can be understood as the latest in a stream of academic novels where an affair between student and teacher is at the center. The affair never comes to any good. Indeed, it's a scandal, each time. However, since Heller's narrative is set in secondary school, its difference from narratives set in college is that the scandal gets to be public, complete with vulgar television reporters and sensational newspaper headlines. We are, through Barbara, revolted. Trouble is, given her own severe sexual repression, on what clear basis can we distance ourselves from the scandal?
Academic novels don't put the question this way. And yet if we read these novels from the perspective of Heller's we can understand why: There abides in them the presumption that sex between students and teachers is exciting, transgressive, liberating. Of course this is why it must ultimately be punished. But first the sex can be explored, and not only through irony. (For an irony-only example, see Francine Prose's novel, Blue Angel.) Heller, on the other hand, can't really explore the sex between the boy and Sheba. (Mediated through Barbara in the novel, not mediated through her in the movie.) So Heller becomes finally complicitous with her narrator.
That is, the sex between student and teacher in Notes on a Scandal is too scandalous -- which is almost the same as being left with no other position than the following one: sex itself is scandalous. This would be Barbara's position. We can't see around her enough to be able to form another, although we certainly can see through her enough to be able to understand the sexual repression that drives Barbara into her own "sentimental" relation with Sheba. And if we insist upon having another view of sex? In the novel, we have only one alternative space available: the quotation marks of Sheba's husband and his friends.
These, in turn, have one especially ironic consequence, which the setting of academic novels explores in more detail: the sex between students and teachers may in fact be caused by the very codes that aim to police it! Far from being a imperious, irrational force, these codes comprehend sex as a negotiable, rational behavior. The excitement of sex? It has to transpire exclusively within legal boundaries. The power of sex? It must be equal, and take place only between- -- or among -- equals. Never mind that to much of the rest of the world such notions about sex are fatuous. (How many other countries have produced even a handful of novels about affairs between students and teachers?) These notions are what our own social and political sexual history has given to us.
Sheba's affair is a product of this history, especially, I would argue, its development within the academic culture whose end result is the quotation marks of her husband and his friends. The novel never clarifies such an explanation. But it suggests it (and is arguably more provocative for only doing so). The foundation of Sheba's affair has to do with something that threatens to burn quotation marks away: passion. Compare when at one point Sheba tells of one of her husband's colleagues -- from Finland -- who once made a "fairly unambiguous" pass at her. At her failure to respond, the man becomes nasty and accuses Sheba of being a "tease." How well feminism has taught us to know this male ruse! As Heller writes, it was "as if he begrudged her for having the power to attract him."
I take the author rather than her narrator to be making the point because the narrator is blind to the possibility of her own placement (later made manifest) in this same dynamic. In any case, we're not blind. We know all about the ruses of sexual power -- including how women act to efface the ruses as well as how men act to condemn them. We know it's better to hate students than to desire them if the choice comes to that, although we have the considerable resources of our irony to forestall such a painful choice. Indeed, we know everything about sexual power -- “ours as well as theirs -- except, well, its power, which is of course the very thing that Notes on a Scandal is all about.
No male, Finnish, or academic nonsense about Sheba's 15-year-old, who is in thrall with his own sexuality and feels no need to be apologetic about it. He was, Barbara reports Sheba as maintaining, "either too young or too obtuse to appreciate the outrageous of his ambition." Moreover, she continues, "he didn't tie himself in rhetorical knots trying to be equal to her beauty. When he looked at her, it was as if he were gobbling her up," Barbara reports Sheba as adding "like a peach." We might ask: how dare he? Or: how dare she? But it seems to me we might also ask: how dare we ignore the human cost being exacted each time we ourselves look at our own students and, if we look with desire, reach instead for a rhetorical hot flannel?