“Anything to Avoid a Scandal”: How Colleges Sideline Sexual Abuse Complaints

When Maura G. was an undergraduate at American University in Washington, DC, she was thrilled to enroll in a screenwriting class with Arnošt Lustig (1926-2011), a Holocaust survivor whose writings had been turned into a movie titled Shadows in the Night and Fog. Several weeks later, however, her excitement turned to disgust. The reason? Sexual harassment.

Dishonor Roll“He groped the women students while talking to us after class and made it clear that we had to do more than just write well in order to get a good grade,” Maura recalls. “I was incredibly angry and went to an associate dean to complain. She told me that the school was aware that Lustig sexually harassed female students and then went on to tell me that the university depended on him to bring in funding. She literally told me that point blank. She had a kind of wistful look on her face, like she felt bad about it, but she made it clear that the university was not going to do anything to stop his predatory behavior.”

Maura’s encounter with Lustig took place more than three decades ago, but the passage of time has done little to dampen her fury. Meanwhile Mark Story, the current director of strategic communications at American University, said the school “takes seriously any harassment allegation that is raised by a member of our community” but said he was “unable to comment on the particular allegations” made by Maura.

Now an attorney, Maura is one of thousands of students who’ve experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse on campus. This widespread problem continues to span every level of academia, affecting undergraduates, graduate students and junior faculty members. And regardless of whether the behavior is between peers or is between a student and his or her teacher or adviser, unwanted sexual attention has long been more rule than exception. Worse, few, if any, colleges and universities have done much to change the culture in which harassment and assault flourish and fester.

“Academic institutions will do anything to avoid a scandal,” Toni H. Oliviero, a former dean at two liberal arts colleges in New York City, told Truthout. This includes sidestepping the law to minimize negative publicity and maligning the person who complains.

In fact, despite two regulations, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Clery Act — legislation that prohibits sex discrimination by any school that receives federal funding and that lays out procedures and reporting requirements once formal complaints are made — anti-violence and educational equity activists say enforcement is typically toothless and reporting inaccurate.

Indeed, according to Deborah Vagins, senior vice president of public policy and research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a nonprofit organization that advances equity for women and girls, when the AAUW analyzed data submitted by mandated college and university reporters in 2015, researchers were startled to discover that 89 percent of them noted zero incidents of on-campus rape. “This raises some red flags since it does not look accurate,” Vagins says.

Building a Dossier of Anecdotal Evidence

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In, a consulting and coaching firm that provides wide-ranging services to academics at all career levels. Kelsky developed a crowdsourced survey about sexual harassment on campus that went live on Kelsky’s organizational website, theprofessorisin.com, in December 2017. Respondents were self-selected and came from dozens of two- and four-year institutions, both public and private, ranging from Ivy League schools to rural community colleges. Within two weeks, 1,900 random people — most (but not all) of them identifying as female — logged on to report a range of experiences:

  • A senior colleague made overt sexual comments to me, including describing himself naked;
  • A member of my Masters’ Thesis committee talked to me about how the Greeks slept with their students, hugged me at the end of a meeting, and said ‘MMMM, that feels good’;
  • A male colleague asked me how teaching was going. I said, ‘My throat hurts from talking so much.’ He said, ‘You know how to fix that? Suck more dick’;
  • I was raped while conducting fieldwork and told not to let it interfere with my research. I was also told not to talk or write about it and was given no institutional support or advice.”

In the eight months since the survey launched, nearly 2,500 entries have been logged onto its spreadsheet. “I created an anonymous site so that academia as a whole would get an undeniable sense of the scope of the problem,” Kelsky says. Although anecdotal, she notes that the incidents document how damaging harassment can be. “I intentionally included three impacts: mental health, careers and life choices, and have concluded that people’s fear increases as they enter the realm of graduate studies and junior faculty positions.”

The harm, she continues, is demonstrable. Some people who’ve stayed in academia have post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders; others have had compromised careers because they’ve had to switch jobs, typically going to less prestigious institutions; and still others have left desired careers in academia because of sexual harassment and abuse.

In addition, because the academy is a patriarchy, Kelsky points out that men predominate in administrative positions and as chairs of virtually every department except women’s studies. “The academy is also intensely hierarchical,” she adds, “with those on the lowest rungs dependent on those above them. They require sponsorships and recommendations at every stage of their careers, from getting a dissertation proposal approved, to applying for jobs and promotions. Every step requires the support of people above you, and that support can be eradicated if you rock the boat.”

On top of this, Kelsky says, because academic salaries tend to be lower than those in the private sector, many with Ph.D.s see the “prestige of a professorship and institutional status” as the ultimate payoff. “The title can be a powerful drug and explains why a lot of people side with the powerful over the claims of the victim.”

What’s more, Kelsky says, there’s the longstanding notion of the “great male genius” — the idea that “superior” male minds need free rein to create, research and teach. “The expectation is that these eccentric men are somewhat unhinged and have no choice but to act accordingly. I categorically oppose that.”

So do the more than 7,000 people who signed a petition against T. Florian Jaeger, a professor in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at the University of Rochester, a private college in upstate New York. To date, six faculty members have resigned in protest of the college’s protection of a man they allege has been grossly inappropriate with colleagues and students.

Celeste Kidd and Steven T. Piantadosi, assistant professors in Jaeger’s department, were among them. In their resignation letter, they write that “University of Rochester President Richard Feldman has declined to sanction, much less fire, T. Florian Jaeger, a professor who sent an unwanted picture of his penis to a student; made insulting and objectifying comments about students’ sexual desirability, appearance, and vaginal taste; used drugs at a lab retreat with students; and had sex with an undergraduate, among other unethical behaviors.”

Complaints against Jaeger resulted in a 111-page complaint that was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last August. In it, more than a dozen people accused Jaeger of years of harassment and intimidation. A month later, Jaeger was put on paid leave; the university subsequently hired the New York City-based law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton and authorized an internal investigation by Debevoise attorney Mary Jo White — former US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York and chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission during the Obama administration. Her conclusion? Jaeger should be cleared of all charges.

Although White conceded that Jaeger used “bad judgment” and was “immature,” she said he had not violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. The upshot? Jaeger will return to the classroom in the fall of 2018 as a full professor.

“After the EEOC complaint was filed, the complainants were given a right-to-sue letter so we have now proceeded to a lawsuit,” Steven Piantadosi told Truthout. “The university has filed a motion to dismiss, which was argued in court a few months ago. We’re now awaiting a decision to see if we can proceed.”

In the meantime, he continues, the university has issued several new policies on dealing with sexual harassment and abuse, something Piantadosi calls a superficial PR move. “The problem was never that there were no policies,” he continues. “The problem is that every administrator looked the other way and tried to make the complaints go away. It doesn’t matter what the policies are if the administration does not take complainant issues to heart.”

University of Rochester spokeswoman Sarah Miller declined to comment, writing in an email that “current litigation of the issue prevents us from participating in an interview.”

Dynamics of Abuse at Religious Colleges

It should come as no surprise that religious colleges and universities are not exempt from assertions of sexual harassment or sexual violence. Take Ohio Christian University (OCU), where former President Mark A. Smith and his son Doug Smith are currently defendants in two separate sexual harassment lawsuits that allege overt misconduct during their tenure there — Mark as college president and Doug on staff in the IT department.

Although both are now employed by the religiously conservative Columbia International University in South Carolina, OCU’s former attorney, Jeremy Davitz, is suing the Smiths, arguing that he was fired by Mark Smith in retaliation after investigating — and substantiating — claims that Doug had made racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments to co-workers and had subjected a female colleague to what he called “a slut test,” forcing his fingers into her mouth to see if she would clamp down.

Administrators at Columbia International University did not respond to my request for comment about the pending charges.

Michelle Panchuk, now an assistant professor of philosophy at Murray State University in Kentucky, graduated from a fundamentalist “biblically oriented” college in 2007, and although she does not know either Smith personally, she knows the obstacles that students attending Christian colleges face when they experience sexual harassment.

“The gender and power dynamics of conservative Christian institutions focus on women being modest and submitting to biblical authority,” she says. “This creates an environment where women who are sexually harassed immediately wonder if they somehow led the man on or were not modest enough.”

They also tend to blame themselves for not doing more to prevent the attention or abuse. Topping it off, Panchuk concludes, “The administration not only presents itself as the educational authority, but it presents itself as God’s mouthpiece to the student body. This means that when the administration commands a student to do something, it is tantamount to God speaking.”

Stopping Harassment and Abuse

While there is no single approach to fighting campus harassment or sexual abuse, many activists are pushing for passage of the Patsy T. Mink and Louise M. Slaughter Equity in Education Act of 2018. Deborah Vagins of the AAUW says the Act will strengthen Title IX and the Clery Act by establishing an Office of Gender Equity at the Department of Education, and will allocate additional funding to train Title IX coordinators — those required to take and investigate complaints of sexual harassment or abuse in every school, kindergarten through college, that receives federal dollars — and provide technical assistance to them. Additionally, the Act includes money that programs wishing to enhance gender equity can compete for.

But even if the Act passes, Vagins says, it won’t be a quick fix to this intransigent problem. Making sure that Title IX coordinators are aggressive, and investigations are robust and thorough, is essential. Furthermore, she cautions that anti-harassment and anti-violence education needs to begin long before students enroll in college. “We know that sexual harassment is part of life for middle and high school students,” she says. “Almost half — 48 percent — experience it. But even though sexual harassment and abuse don’t start when students get to campus, it can ramp up there.” In fact, AAUW researchers have found that two-thirds of college students experience harassment but that less than 10 percent report incidents to a Title IX coordinator. “There’s obviously much more that needs to be done by the Department of Education, schools and Title IX coordinators to make colleges and universities safe,” Vagins says.

Kelsky agrees and notes that even though “some title IX complaints have been successful, every policy and law is executed by humans and some of them align with the power of the university over the claims of victims.” That said, she notes that having more women in leadership positions helped create the #MeToo movement. Secondarily, seeing powerful people come forward about the abuse they’ve experienced has encouraged the less powerful to speak out — something she champions. On an individual level, she notes that victims need to trust their instincts, and if something feels unsafe, to feel secure in articulating boundaries and insisting, for example, that a door be kept open during a faculty-student or supervisory meeting. She also advises people to speak up, despite the risks, and keep a “paper trail,” collecting emails, texts or notes so that claims do not devolve into “he said/she said.”

Nonetheless, educational and gender equity activists like Kelsky and Vagins understand that changing the culture of the academy will require bold, outspoken, risk-taking students, administrators and faculty members — like the six who resigned from the University of Rochester — to confront those who assume that their behavior is beyond reproach.

“Colleges and universities could avoid a lot of bad publicity if they would walk directly into the situation and make sure that complaints are taken seriously,” says Oliviero. “The attitude used to be that no complaint would ever come to light. This is blessedly changing now, and while I’m not sure what moral, legal or ethical responsibility a university has, it should always be willing to take responsibility and educate people about acceptable behavior.”