When Will the ‘Harvey Effect’ Reach Academia?

In the hypercompetitive world of higher education, many academics who face sexual harassment remain silent to avoid forfeiting a promotion or research gig.

Tyann Sorrell, who accused her boss, UC Berkeley's former law school dean Sujit Choudhry, of sexually harassing her, speaks at a news conference (Jeff Chiu / AP)

His career was too important. Despite allegations of sexual harassment that were substantiated by an internal investigation, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law allowed Dean Sujit Choudhry to stay on the job. In 2015, Tyann Sorrell, Choudhry’s assistant, described how the dean had pursued her for kisses and long hugs over a period of months. Choudhry initially held onto his professorship and benefits. Even after an uproar, the university, which boasts a “zero tolerance” policy, kept him on payroll (he was pushed to resign as dean after Sorrell sued him for sexual harassment in 2016, but he remained on the law-school faculty). Choudhry was eventually put on a two-year sabbatical, still retaining travel funding and research grants (the settlement reached between Sorrell, Choudhry, and the school ensures that he will voluntarily resign in 2018).

The legal community was riveted. This sort of harassment in academia had little history of resulting in punishment. “If you think of maybe the last person on earth who would do this, you would think it would be the dean of one of the most prestigious law schools in the country,” John D. Winer, Sorrell’s lawyer, told The New York Times last year. Unfortunately, Winer is off the mark. The open secret in academia is how many women face sexual harassment on a regular basis. A 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities at 27 elite private and public research universities found that roughly one in 10 female graduate students states that she has been sexually harassed by a faculty member at her university. Although some critics questioned the study’s methodology, suggesting it may have resulted in an overestimation, the results demonstrate that academia is by no means immune to the kind of harassment people are speaking out about in entertainment and media.

And the harassment can often be severe. A recent study of harassment complaints by graduate students against faculty members surveyed 221 reported cases at 210 institutions, the majority of which occurred since 2000, and found that the faculty harassers accused were more often accused of physical, not verbal, harassment, and that more than half of the cases studied—53 percent—involved alleged serial harassers. In the law, the humanities, and the sciences, the stories are legion. So when will colleges and universities face their #MeToo moment?

The stories of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial sexual harassment, assault, and even rape put a human face on the well-known phenomenon of the casting couch—and explained the real human cost of his disturbing and disgusting behavior. Other well-known alleged abusers in entertainment and media, from Bill Cosby to Bill O’Reilly, have been unmasked. As more women come forward, the nation has engaged in a spirited discussion of how frequently women in certain industries face hostile working environments, where the cost of job success is sometimes seen as keeping quiet or leaving the industry. And after President Trump boasted in 2005 that powerful men can grab women’s private parts with impunity, people have come to understand that at least when it comes to Hollywood and cable TV, many women are seen as more than employees—they are seen as employees “with benefits.”

But just because they’re not in the public eye doesn’t mean that other sectors are bastions of respectful treatment of women. Academia is particularly fertile territory for those who want to leverage their power to gain sexual favors or inflict sexual violence on vulnerable individuals. After President Obama’s Department of Education issued a new policy under Title IX, addressing sexual harassment on campus, many critics contested the new approach to adjudicating disputes between students, including the lower standard of proof applied to allegations and due process for the accused. What got lost in the debate, however, is what happens to graduate students and nontenured professors and instructors who are subject to abuse.

As the daughter, wife, and sister of academics, I know well the cloistered environment that prevails in advanced-degree programs. Students seeking doctorates, those hoping to advance from adjunct or instructor to tenure track, and those who are on the cusp of a tenure decision are particularly vulnerable to sexual predators. In the best of circumstances, a doctoral adviser is a mentor, coach, adviser, and substitute parent, helping the student structure a thesis and publish it and navigate the shoals of a difficult job market. He—in academia, men still dominate full professorships—is the single most important person for recommendations and advancement. Prospective students base their decisions on where to apply to school on the status of a potential adviser.

When the relationship with a mentor goes wrong, when a parent figure becomes a predator, a career can go up in flames. The thesis adviser, or the chair of the department who’s making decisions on tenure or advancement, has a unique power to destroy a woman’s future. One anonymous academic explained in a piece for The Guardian that, in a particularly difficult job market, “permanent positions are like golden unicorns at the end of the rainbow and no one can afford to be known as ‘the one who complained.’” When an adviser or a prominent professor puts his hand on his younger colleague’s thigh or asks a graduate mentee to come talk to him in his hotel room at a conference, this woman knows too well the consequences of saying no.

In a recent cover article for Chemical & Engineering News, senior editors Linda Wang and Andrea Widener describe the toxic brew in chemistry departments, where women scientists report the widespread harassment that they suffered as students or junior faculty. Some give up, abandoning a profession they had spent years trying to break into; others have remained, sticking it out to stay employed. But what’s common, Wang and Widener found, is the silence. Just like the actress Mira Sorvino, who resisted coming forward about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein out of fear of jeopardizing her job in a movie, these chemists feared the loss of grant funding, tenure, or their job.

I have written previously for The Atlantic on adjuncts in academia, the low-wage worker of the Ivory Tower. A group that used to represent a mere 25 percent of the profession has now grown to nearly 75 percent, making the contingent workforce the dominant one on campus. What this means is that for those who are hoping and striving to make it to the tenure track, their job is precarious at best. Women are the majority of adjuncts, rendering them even more vulnerable to full professors or administrators who want to take advantage of them.

Though the dangers are clear, women in academia are beginning to join in the #MeToo campaign, naming predators and speaking out. Maybe this can make a difference in ensuring universities take more seriously their obligation to protect and defend the intellectual freedom of their female students, which is contingent on being treated with respect. But in the rarified world of academia, until women feel that they can say no without repercussions, the doors will remain closed to many of them.