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No more ‘toughing it out’: Let’s end sexual harassment on campus

The campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)
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By Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran

One recent morning, we were outlining a lecture on Shakespeare’s sonnets for a class we teach at Yale University when a former undergraduate knocked on the door. This student, now an aspiring academic herself, wanted advice about her discomfort in her new home department. She was trying to get out of her graduate program because of a now-familiar, sickening series of events: sexual in-jokes by male faculty members in mixed groups, implicit dismissal of her intellectual abilities and academic work, being grabbed by the arm and forced into conversations, the suggestion that she would never ‘make it’ without mentoring.

“Does this add up to actual gender discrimination?” one of us wondered out loud. We checked ourselves with embarrassment, and then found ourselves laughing darkly. Just 10 years into an academic career, and we were struggling to tell which behaviors flouted the federal Title IX standards against discrimination and hostility on the basis of gender. Of course the encounters this student described were violations, but also—of course—we were both hesitant to name them as such. Amid the blurry boundaries staked out in faculty offices and classrooms, in dorms and cafes, and over the sometimes risque but exciting conversations that flowed from long dinners and drinks following seminars and lectures, it had become hard for us to recall where people drew the line in the ideal world of legal protections.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the fall of various media moguls for sexual harassment, such behavior suddenly seems legible for what it always was: a persistently hostile professional environment often filled with intimidation, discrimination, assault. And while it may not seem all that surprising to see the glamorous, fluid worlds of Hollywood, television and journalism exposed, it is perhaps more shocking to recognize that our schools, colleges, and universities too are filled with similar problems.

Now survivors of sexual harassment in the academy are joining the #MeToo movement. Two former graduate students accused Stanford University professors of raping them years ago. (One of the professors, now retired, denies the allegation, and the other is dead.) Dartmouth College placed three faculty members on paid leave amid an investigation of alleged sexual misconduct. We read this growing cascade of stories with recognition and no surprise. Yale, where we teach, has also witnessed investigations into alleged sexual harassment. A survey of 27 major universities in 2015 revealed that more than half of all Yale students reported having experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment since arriving at the university. And the threshold for reporting was high: students were only asked to respond if their experience had a significant adverse effect on their academic performance. While women, trans and non-binary people were disproportionately victimized, it turned out that men were not exempt. Shocking as they may sound, these statistics fall within the average for comparable peer institutions.

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With the accumulating news coverage of sexual harassment scandals, situations like these are inspiring large-scale public conversations. But we have not yet seen that discussion directed towards the most important places: our educational institutions, where such behaviors are learned, practiced, and replicated every day.

The Trump administration’s new guidance for enforcement of rules against sexual misconduct, which loosen previous Title IX standards, will affect the ability of institutions and individuals to take legal action against harassment and discrimination. That has not drawn the same outrage as the horrific tales of Weinstein’s hotel-room rendezvous. And yet, those hotel rooms and the ivory towers we inhabit have seen the same modus operandi for decades.

Like many in the academy, we have both struggled through anxiety, vulnerability and confusion about the peculiar social aspects of our profession, sometimes alone, sometimes with the help of very small, trusted groups of friends. The question before us now is this: what can we do to address these revelations? After this crucial archiving of long-silenced voices, where will we go, collectively, as our communities are riven apart by these long-buried ghosts?

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Here, our universities—a microcosm of our social worlds and the crucible in which our futures are being shaped—have a key role to play. It is embarrassing to see that in many respects our academic institutions are no better than, or even lag behind, the corporate party suites of the entertainment industry. It is also dispiriting to note how little effective, practical pedagogy around these issues happens at many institutions of higher learning beyond the bounds of a few select departments committed to women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

This semester, we decided we were fed up. In response to these lacunae, and the disappointing record of administrative attention to these matters, we are attempting a grass-roots approach. Supported by a range of colleagues and yes, administrators, we are working to create an informal pedagogy of “climate change” through a series of conversations, panels, and informal lunches. In these fora, we share our experiences, invite students and colleagues to share their own, and we collectively brainstorm responses to situations that feel out of our control. Bystander intervention is a well-studied tactic; as a community, we are slowly practicing what this can look like in our hallways, offices and dining rooms.

The energy, interest and excitement around these initiatives has been at once heartening and terribly sad. As we strive to create a new atmosphere of respect at Yale, we often find ourselves checking our own knee-jerk responses as women who are just slightly older than the students we teach—in ways that we suspect might be equally true, if not more so, for faculty who have been around for decades. We find ourselves needing to reexamine and revise our impulse to just “tough it out” within ambiguous or openly hostile environments, and raise the generally low expectations we now discover we have of others as witnesses or bystanders. Ironically, it turns out that we have to confront our well-socialized habits of tolerance before we can claim to mentor our students.

As many turn to universities as bastions of an intellectual freedom and depth of engagement that they find lacking in our political climate, these internal changes to our academic environments seem all the more important to make. To become actual sources of change in these social conditions, universities need to begin by acknowledging how out of date is their informal lore about dealing with sexual harassment—and how much this lore contradicts their professed egalitarian and progressive politics. As teachers—not only male, but also female-bodied ones—we ourselves are often in need of a profound reeducation.

Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran are assistant professors of comparative literature at Yale University and Public Voices Fellows with the OpEd Project. Figlerowicz is also on the English faculty.