A Persistently Ignored Problem

Public attention for student-on-student harassment and assault is overdue, but colleges also need to prevent the mistreatment of students by faculty members, writes Billie Wright Dziech.

February 10, 2015

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.”

Or consider Paradise Valley Community College, which fired Michael Todd, a professor, after a student died of a drug overdose in his condominium. Todd lost his job, and the student, 19-year-old Andria Ziegler, her life.

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.”


Billie Wright Dziech is a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and coauthor of The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top